By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - A federal appeals court ruled on Friday afternoon that students may pray and mention God at Saturday night's graduation at a high school in a San Antonio suburb, overturning a district judge's ruling.
"Texas will continue to fight for the rights of all those who wish to pray in our state," Governor Rick Perry said in a statement commending the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery had threatened incarceration if Medina Valley School District officials or students led the commencement ceremony audience in prayer or mentioned what Biery called in his ruling "a supreme being."
The ruling said that the school could not use the words "invocation" and "benediction" at graduation because doing so would make it sound like the school is "sponsoring a religion."
The appeals court ruled that the order restrained the free speech rights of the students, who "are in fact not school-sponsored." The court also noted that the school had already changed the name of the name of the invocation and benediction.
"I am so excited, I feel like this has been a huge blessing to see how God has worked in our lives," said Angela Hildenbrand, the valedictorian at Medina Valley High School in Castroville, and one of the people who successfully appealed the ruling. "I absolutely believe Jesus made this happen."
Tuesday's ruling followed a lawsuit against the district by agnostics Christa and Danny Schultz, who said their son might not take part in graduation if he were forced to participate in religious activities.
Ayesha Kahn, an attorney for Americans United for Church and State, which represents the Schultzes, said earlier this week that the district "has been flouting the law for decades."
The issue struck a chord in Texas, where it is not uncommon for students to pray before tests and football games. Some of the state's top elected officials weighed in against the district judge's ruling, with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Wednesday asking the appeals court to overturn that order. Abbott was backed by fellow Republicans Perry and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst.
The appeals court "has affirmed our belief that no citizen has the right to go to the government to restrict or prohibit the speech of another citizen," said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel for the Texas-based Liberty Institute, which intervened in the case on behalf of Hildenbrand.
Hildenbrand, who just turned 18 and plans to study music ministry in college, said she will reflect on the events of the past week when she delivers her valedictory remarks.
"It is amazing how God works in our lives," she told Reuters.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)