5th Circuit, Education / Schools, Federal Judges, Free Speech, Judge of the Day, Religion, Texas

A Judge of the Day, Back in the News: Fred Biery

Judge Fred Biery

Three years ago, we bestowed Judge of the Day honors upon the Honorable Fred Biery, a federal judge in the Western District of Texas. Back in 2008, Judge Biery rejected a religious school’s attempt to join an influential statewide extracurricular organization. In the process of ruling against Cornerstone Christian Schools, Judge Biery took the Bible and turned it around on them, in a snarky opinion quoting religious texts to refute a religious school.

(His Honor apparently enjoys colorful writing. See also this amusing ruling, with shout-outs in the footnotes to such fabulous creatures as Barbra Streisand and Stephen Sondheim.)

Well, it seems that Judge Biery — make that Chief Judge Biery, as of last June — continues to antagonize organized religion. Let’s read about the latest controversy he’s incited, this time involving an imminent high school graduation ceremony….

UPDATE: Judge Biery’s ruling in the case discussed below was overturned on Friday afternoon by the Fifth Circuit. Details and links appear in the update at the end of this post.

Here’s a report from the Christian Post:

A Texas valedictorian is fighting to appeal a court’s ban on prayers at graduation ceremonies, with her own being this Saturday.

Angela Hildenbrand, the valedictorian of Medina Valley High School in Castroville, Texas, is fighting U.S. District Judge Fred Biery’s ruling on Tuesday that the Medina Valley School District’s graduation ceremonies cannot have an invocation or benediction. Biery ruled that students can express their religious beliefs in speeches, but cannot call the crowd to pray or deliver a message considered a prayer.

Hildenbrand is being represented in her emergency appeal to the Fifth Circuit by the Liberty Institute. “The judge’s ruling banning prayer and religious references violates Angela Hildenbrand’s constitutional right to freely express her religious beliefs,” said Erin Leu, an attorney at the Liberty Institute. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly called for an end to religious viewpoint discrimination, and attempts to censor Ms. Hildenbrand’s speech solely for religious references are unconstitutional and without legal basis.”

Let’s take a closer look at what Chief Judge Biery has ordered. Fox News reports:

A federal judge has ordered a Texas school district to prohibit public prayer at a high school graduation ceremony. Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery’s order against the Medina Valley Independent School District also forbids students from using specific religious words including “prayer” and “amen.”

Per Judge Biery, certain words are verboten from the program:

Judge Biery’s ruling banned students and other speakers from using religious language in their speeches. Among the banned words or phrases are: “join in prayer,” “bow their heads,” “amen,” and “prayer.”

He also ordered the school district to remove the terms “invocation” and “benediction” from the graduation program.

“These terms shall be replaced with ‘opening remarks’ and ‘closing remarks,’” the judge’s order stated. His ruling also prohibits anyone from saying, “in [a deity’s name] we pray.”

And he is prepared to back up his order with the power of the federal government, stating that violators could face incarceration for contempt of court.

On the other hand, religion is not completely banned from the ceremony. Chief Judge Biery’s order does allow students “to make the sign of the cross, wear religious garb, or kneel to face Mecca.”

(Or maybe pray to a pigskin. We hear that high school football holds religious significance for Texans.)

Senator John Cornyn, for one, is not a fan of Chief Judge Biery’s ruling. “As valedictorian of Medina Valley High School, Angela Hildenbrand has earned the right to deliver a graduation speech that is uncensored by a federal judge,” Senator Cornyn said. “The district court’s decision, to quote the late Chief Justice, bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life. This heavy-handed, activist decision is exactly the wrong civics lesson to teach to the Class of 2011.”

But Senator Cornyn is a former rather than a current appellate judge. What will the Fifth Circuit say — with graduation scheduled for tomorrow? Stay tuned.

Readers, what do you think? Is Judge Biery bringing a welcome dose of secularism to the Lone Star State? Or has he taken things too far with respect to separation of church and state?

UPDATE: On Friday afternoon, the Fifth Circuit dissolved Judge Biery’s temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. You can read the Fifth Circuit’s per curiam order here and a press release from the Liberty Institute here.

Federal Judge Prohibits Prayer at Texas Graduation Ceremony [Fox News]
Texas Valedictorian Fights Agnostics Over Graduation Prayer [Christian Post]
Texas Judge: No Prayer or Religious Words at Medina Valley Graduation [New American]
Judge issues extreme ruling against Texas high school graduation prayer [The PJ Tatler]
High School Valedictorian Files Intervention Into Lawsuit on Appeal to Pray at Graduation [Liberty Institute]
Sen. Cornyn: Banning Prayer At Graduation Wrong Lesson For Class Of 2011 [Texas Insider]

Earlier: Judge of the Day: Fred Biery

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