A federal judge ruled that a case about the difference between student-led prayer and a student’s private religious beliefs deserves a civil trial.
NORFOLK – A federal judge said Monday that he will hear arguments that Isle of Wight County school officials hampered a student’s First Amendment rights when they kept her from singing a religious song at her high school graduation ceremony.
In denying the school system’s motion to dismiss Anna Ashby’s case, U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson said it raises questions about what individual students can say or sing in a school-sponsored setting.
The case could set a precedent in determining how school officials decide what sort of religious speech or songs to allow by individual students at school events, according to attorneys trying the case.
Ashby, 18 at the time, volunteered last spring to sing at her Windsor High School commencement ceremony, as a few students usually do every year. But school officials balked at the lyrics of her chosen song, “The Prayer,” which mentions God and faith and has religious undertones. School officials did not let Ashby or any other student sing.
Ashby, who is now a freshman studying music at a conservatory in Connecticut, was not in court Monday. She has sued for $1 and attorney’s fees. No trial date has been set for the case.
Jackson said the particulars of this case point toward murky legal waters surrounding the difference between school-sponsored prayer and the expression of an individual. Jackson returned to that issue several times in questioning Steve Zahn, the attorney representing school officials.
“If there is a distinction, what do you suggest we have here?” Jackson asked. “This is not a school-sponsored prayer or song, is it?
“There was no school board support for it. No school board initiation of it, at all. This is a distinction.”
Ashby’s case is being handled by The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based civil liberties group that wants to establish case law in support of religious expression in a school setting. If some expression is not allowed, said attorney Lanis L. Karnes after the hearing, the potential result could be overkill.
“Look at school Christmas plays,” she said. “Look at what’s happening to the pledge.”
But Zahn argued right along the line separating church and state. Zahn said that schools had the right to keep religious speech from the graduation.
He referred several times to a 1993 decision involving Loudoun County schools that said any religious speech in a school setting is an inherent violation of the Constitution. That decision came from a judge in the 4th Circuit, the same division of U.S. District Court where Ashby’s case is being heard.
The daughter of James R. Ashby, pastor at Franklin Church of God, Ashby first volunteered to sing at the graduation during its planning stages. She said she chose “The Prayer” because it would be an inspirational choice. The song has been recorded by Christian musicians and secular artist Celine Dion.
But a teacher reviewed the lyrics and expressed doubt. The teacher passed the song to Windsor High School principal William Owen, who passed it to Superintendent Michael McPherson.
He said it would not be allowed because of the religious content, and the School Board reinforced that decision in a unanimous vote.