By PAUL J. WEBER, Associated Press
SAN ANTONIO (AP) — A federal judge who was vilified by Republican presidential hopefuls for banning prayer at a Texas high school graduation delivered a scathing and unusually personal response Thursday, saying those who used the case to further political goals "should be ashamed."
In a court filing laying out the settlement terms of the prayer case, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery wrote that he forgave Christians who "venomously and vomitously" threatened his assassination, he thanked the U.S. Marshals for providing him additional security and without singling anyone out by name, offered a self-deprecating nod to those wished him the worst.
"To those who have prayed for my death: Your prayers will someday be answered, as inevitably trumps probability," Biery wrote.
The unusually personal comments in a federal court order overshadowed the actual settlement. The case had been closely watched by social conservatives, and on the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich has portrayed Biery, a 1994 Clinton appointee, as the embodiment of so-called activist judges.
After winning the South Carolina primary, Gingrich singled out Biery as a "dictatorial religious bigot" for his decision in the San Antonio court case.
Under the settlement, the Medina Valley Independent School District won't officially make prayer part of graduation ceremonies. The settlement does not, however, prohibit valedictorians or other student speakers from praying during their remarks.
Craig Wood, an attorney for the school district, said the deal forces the district to make only minor changes.
Last May, Biery granted a temporary restraining order filed by an agnostic family who claimed that traditions at their son's graduation, including the invocation and benediction, excluded their beliefs and violated their constitutional rights.
Biery's ruling prohibited Medina Valley seniors from asking audience members to join in prayer, bow their heads, end remarks with "amen," or even use the word "prayer." A federal appeals court later reversed the ban before the ceremony took place.
Being overruled didn't prevent Biery from coming under fire. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who hadn't yet officially announced his run for president, called Biery's decision "reprehensible" and an "inappropriate federal encroachment into the lives of Americans." His state's attorney general, Greg Abbott, joined the South Texas district in helping fight the case.
Although Biery didn't admonish any politicians by name, Perry appeared to be one of his targets.
"To those in the executive and legislative branches of government who have demagogued this case for their own political goals: You should be ashamed of yourselves," Biery wrote.
Perry spokesman Josh Havens said in a statement that Perry is a staunch defender of the Constitution and will continue to fight for the right to freely pray. He did not address Biery's personal remarks.
Biery began his opinion by stating that the case was not about right to pray. Instead, Biery said, the case was about whether the Constitution allows for a governmental body to promote and support a religious viewpoint not held by a minority.
Biery applauded the terms of the settlement.
"The settlement memorialized in today's Order signifies a bright point in our nation's long and difficult effort to harmonize the competing interests written into the First Amendment," he wrote.
The settlement prohibits Medina Valley school district employees from joining students in prayer circles or inviting others to pray. The district is also forbidden from displaying crosses, Bible verses or any other religious paraphernalia on school grounds. Wood, however, said teachers may still keep religious icons on their desks.
Students are still allowed to deliver prayers at graduations, football games and other school events. Those moments must generically be introduced to the audience as simply "student remarks."
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