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VOTE ON GRADUATION PRAYER IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL, COURT SAYS

A federal appeals court Friday declared unconstitutional a New Jersey school district's policy of allowing high school seniors to vote on whether to include a prayer in graduation ceremonies.

The ruling by the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court injunction against the policy of the Black Horse Pike Regional Board of Education in Camden County, New Jersey.The prayer policy was never implemented, because it had been blocked earlier by restraining orders on the grounds it blurred the line between church and state.

"We're quite pleased with the decision," said David Rocah, staff attorney for American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which sought to block the policy. "The decision comes just in time for the public school graduation season."

The school board adopted its policy in 1993 in the wake of a Supreme Court decision invalidating a public school's practice of including a prayer in its graduation ceremony.

The New Jersey board said it was not endorsing prayer, but that students could decide through a senior class vote on the issue.

However, the appeals court said in its ruling that turning the decision over to students still violated principles of church-state separation.

"Although the state's involvement here is certainly less evident, the student referendum does not erase the state's imprint from this graduation prayer," it said.