On May 26, 2011, an agnostic graduating senior at Medina Valley High School; his agnostic older brother, a former student at the school; and their agnostic parents filed suit against the Medina Valley Independent School District in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, San Antonio Division. The plaintiffs, represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and by private counsel, asked the court for declaratory and injunctive relief, nominal damages and attorneys' fees, alleging that the School District had violated the First Amendment. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that the school district, by engaging in a course of conduct that included "presenting, sponsoring, encouraging, inviting, or coercing prayers at school and school-sponsored activities and events; displaying and permitting the display of crosses and other religious icons; and retaliating against students who complain about the unlawful promotion of religion or who decline to participate in religious prayers, practices, or rituals," was in violation of the Establishment Clause.
The plaintiffs moved for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on the same day that they filed their complaint, hoping to enjoin defendants from featuring prayer at the upcoming high school graduation ceremony scheduled for June 4. After a hearing on May 31, the District Court (Judge Fred Biery) granted their motion on June 1, finding that plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits and that failing to issue an injunction would result in irreparable harm to them. It ordered the terms "invocation" and "benediction" stricken from the graduation program and any official group prayer removed.
The defendant made an emergency interlocutory appeal to the Fifth Circuit, and on June 3 a three-judge panel (Judge W. Eugene Davis, Judge Jerry E. Smith and Judge Leslie H. Southwick) issued a per curiam opinion granting the motion to dissolve the temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. The panel stated that they were not persuaded that plaintiffs were "substantially likely to prevail on the merits, particularly on the issue that the individual prayers or other remarks to be given by students at graduation are, in fact, school-sponsored."
The injunction was dissolved, and though the terms "invocation" and "benediction" had already been removed from the program, the graduation ceremony the following day included prayer as originally planned.
On July 11, 2011, the District Court (Judge Biery) urged the parties to attempt to settle rather than engage in protracted litigation, and the parties agreed to try mediation. At the end of the summer, however, they reported that they had been unable to reach an agreement.
On September 6, 2011, the defendant moved to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint for lack of jurisdiction. This motion was mooted by plaintiffs' submission of an amended complaint on November 2, but the defendant submitted a second motion to dismiss the amended complaint for lack of jurisdiction on December 9.
On January 4, 2012, the defendant moved for summary judgment, and the following day plaintiffs moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of school prayer.
The court never ruled on any of these motions, however, because the parties were able to settle their dispute in February 2012. On February 8, they submitted a joint motion to approve their proposed agreement. Under the terms of the settlement, the school district agreed to stop initiating, soliciting or directing prayers at school events, displaying religious icons and texts at schools, inviting religious speakers to proselytize, or playing any part in writing or editing student graduation speeches. It further agreed to train its staff in how to comply with the agreement, educate students on religious diversity, and refrain from retaliating against or disparaging plaintiffs. The District Court was to retain jurisdiction to enforce the settlement for ten years.
On February 9, the Court (Judge Biery) entered a consent decree approving the settlement. Schultz v. Medina Valley Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 5:11-cv-00422-FB, 2012 WL 517518, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19397 (W.D. Tex. Feb. 9, 2012).
The following month, the Court was called upon to enforce it--the school superintendent and the high school band director each made statements that could be construed as disparaging of plaintiffs (the former referring to the lawsuit as a "witch hunt" and the latter calling the plaintiffs liars) shortly after the settlement was approved.
On March 19, 2012, the Court (Judge Biery) issued an order requiring the defendant to apologize and plaintiffs to accept the apology. Schultz v. Medina Valley Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 5:11-cv-00422-FB, 2012 WL 933115, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 37130 (W.D. Tex. Mar. 19, 2012). Both did so.
As of the date of this summary there have been no further incidents.Christopher Schad - 06/13/2012