COLUMBUS - Patrons of Lakeview Community School District, including eight senior students, showed their support Monday night for the continuation of prayer during graduation ceremonies.

Those speaking during a public comment period urged the school board to protect graduates' First Amendment freedom of speech rights by not caving in to an American Civil Liberties Union demand that the student-led prayers end.

ACLU Nebraska has used the same amendment's Establishment Clause to denounce the commencement activity, calling it unconstitutional under the current format.

"The graduation is for us. It's to celebrate our accomplishments," senior Dillan Wurdeman told the school board. " ... If we want (prayer), I think we should be able to have it."

Fellow senior McKinzie Miller agreed, saying the prayers, which have been held for at least 10 years, aren't intended to "influence religion in any way."

ACLU Nebraska sees things differently.

The group informed the school district in a letter sent Nov. 3 that it believed the commencement ceremony failed to separate church and state and violated students' rights by making religious minorities "second-class participants."

"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," the letter stated.

ACLU Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller said they first approached the district about the issue in 2001 after receiving a citizen complaint.

Since then, Lakeview's graduation ceremony has been run by parents, with that group renting the gymnasium and inviting school board members, faculty and the school band and choir to attend, School Board President Keith Runge said after Monday's meeting.

"It isn't mandatory either," he said.

Marian Rowoldt, one of 18 adult patrons in attendance, brought a note from an attorney stating that it's legal to have student-led prayer if there is no administrative input.

"My concern is what happens to the majority?" she asked of the single complaint that sparked the issue.

ACLU Nebraska contends that courts have made it clear that separation of church and state applies to public school graduations, regardless of whether they are voluntary or conducted by an outside group.

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

The ACLU is asking Lakeview to remove prayer from its graduation ceremony, reserving the religious activity for baccalaureate, a voluntary event typically held the night before.

Aysha Janssen, also representing the Lakeview senior class, pointed to a recent decision by ACLU Nebraska to defend a middle school student at Fremont Public Schools during her plea to the board.

That student was told by school officials earlier this year that she couldn't wear a Rosary. However, the ACLU argued "voluntary, student-led religious practices" are protected by the Constitution.

"We'd all like (prayers) to stay," Janssen said.

Lakeview School Board met in closed session with administrators and legal counsel for one hour Monday night, deciding only to further discuss the issue during a future meeting.