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Atheist Sues in Bid to Bar Prayers at Graduations

May 23, 1986|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

A Sherman Oaks atheist and members of his family filed suit Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court in an attempt to prevent the reading of prayers at high school graduation ceremonies in June.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit on behalf of James E. Brodhead, his wife, Susan Hawes, and their son Daniel, a senior at Van Nuys High School.

The suit said the Brodheads were told that, in spite of their objections, students planning the graduation ceremony at Van Nuys can add a religious invocation if they wish.

Carol A. Sobel, the attorney who filed the case, said the legal adviser for the Los Angeles Unified School District and Supt. Harry Handler told the Brodheads that graduation programming is exempt from the Constitution's doctrine on separation of church and state.

Sobel said the suit seeks an injunction prohibiting the invocation during the graduation ceremonies in mid-June at Van Nuys and at all other high schools in the district.

School legal officials could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Longtime Policy

But Jerry F. Halverson, associate superintendent for business and personnel, said in an interview that it has been district policy as long as he can remember to allow students the discretion of reading prayers at their graduation ceremonies.

Halverson said he was not familiar with the Brodhead case but considers the issues it raised appropriate for the courts.

"Everybody has a position on this kind of thing," Halverson said. "I think, if it's something that the ACLU wants to challenge, it needs to be litigated."

Brodhead, an actor, recalled during an interview that the dispute began during the 1984 graduation of his older son, Will, from Van Nuys when a girl stood up and said, "Shall we bow our heads in prayer?"

Brodhead said he at first shouted, "No," but then decided not to press his objection in the middle of the ceremony, even though all the members of his family were deeply offended.

"A kid gets up and starts a superstitious incantation to a supernatural force, and this undermines everything I have taught them, usurps my place as a parent in teaching my boys morals and theology," Brodhead said. "It means we do not have freedom from religion."

He said he had always taught his two sons that "there is no power greater than the human mind" and that they are atheists also. His wife, though not an atheist, said she feels that religious beliefs are private.

Let the Matter Drop

Brodhead said he filed a protest with the school district but let the matter drop for a year because son Daniel was not graduating until this year. He said he was pleased to learn that the invocation at last June's graduation was secular.

"I thought, 'Ah, ha, they got the message,' " he said.

However, Brodhead said he decided to file the lawsuit when Van Nuys Principal Jane S. Godfrey told him this spring that, on the basis of district legal advice, she would not interfere if students wanted to add a prayer to their ceremony.

ACLU attorney Sobel said a letter to Brodhead from Handler cited the "voluntary nature of graduation ceremonies" and "the wide discretion given to senior classes in developing their commencement programs" as well as two Supreme Court cases as reasons that, "as a matter of law, senior classes of the district may schedule invocations as part of their commencement programs."

"We think the school district has largely misread the case law," Sobel said.

Sobel said the ACLU contends that, because the graduation is in a public setting, the separation doctrine applies because "the power and prestige of the government" is involved. Also, she said, peer pressure among students negates the assertion that the graduation ceremony is voluntary.

Sobel said the case is scheduled for a hearing June 6, in Department 85 of the downtown court.

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