ACLU Nebraska officials want Columbus Lakeview School to stop holding a high school graduation ceremony it says contains unconstitutional religious messages.

"The current ceremony coercively subjects students to religious messages as the price of attending high school commencement," ACLU Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller said in a news release. "This leaves some students and their families feeling like second-class participants at their own graduation."

ACLU began investigating practices at Columbus Lakeview because of a complaint received from a local community member about the program, which features clergy-led prayers at the beginning and end of the graduation ceremony. Lakeview officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Lakeview officials say their ceremony is now a "private graduation," but Miller said it was clear from graduation materials provided by Lakeview to the ACLU that the current graduation ceremony was  private in name only.

"It is perfectly acceptable to have a truly private graduation ceremony as a supplement to the official, school-sponsored event," Miller said. "What is happening at Lakeview High is a sham separation and, therefore, unconstitutional."

In a letter dated Thursday to Lakeview officials, the ACLU cites case law it says shows the graduation ceremony's unconstitutionality and the justification for a lawsuit should school officials fail to remove the prayers from the ceremony.

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"Given the clear state of the law, Lakeview High may not attempt to bypass the Bill of Rights by declaring that a private group now runs the graduation ceremony," the letter to Lakeview officials says. "It is unfair to force students to accept a religious ceremony in order to receive their hard-earned diplomas and experience the once-in-a-lifetime moment of walking across the stage for graduation."

Miller said although Lakeview's ceremony is unconstitutional, voluntary, student-led religious practices are protected by the Constitution and defended by the ACLU.

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com

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