The high school commencement that prompted a lawsuit seeking to guarantee a religion-free ceremony got under way Wednesday afternoon beneath a circling aircraft pulling a banner that read, "God Bless the Graduates '86."
Many members of the graduating class at Van Nuys High School cheered the banner, which was one of several protests against a Board of Education decision to forbid religious references in graduation ceremonies throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Atheist James Brodhead, whose son was one of the 515 Van Nuys High School graduates, filed suit against the district May 22 asking that prayers be prohibited during graduations.
The suit was settled June 3 when the board gave written assurance that it would not allow "any language or other behavior that constitutes a religious observance or practice."
At 5:30 p.m., as the graduating class, clad in billowing blue and white robes, filed across the school's football field toward the reviewing stands, the small single-engine plane flew overhead with the banner rippling behind, inspiring loud cheers and applause.
As if on cue, the school band broke into the traditional graduation march "Pomp and Circumstance."
When the Pledge of Allegiance was recited soon afterward, several dozen students yelled out the phrase "under God."
Brodhead's son, Daniel, received mostly loud cheers when he picked up his diploma. But several demonstrators stood outside the main gate holding signs reading, "Congratulations Atheist."
Watching from outside the chain-link fence around the field was one of the masterminds of the high-flying protest, the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the California Coalition for Traditional Values, an Anaheim-based organization that lobbies for everything from school prayer to a strong national defense.
"I decided to get involved after I read the board's statement," Sheldon said. "They just caved in like a bunch of little kiddies. I don't think any atheistic or agnostic views should be able to control the graduation ceremonies of 618 schools."
He said he had planned the flight along with June Fawell and Charles Wolfe, Christian activists from Los Angeles. No representatives of the Van Nuys community or student body were involved in the planning, they said.
The trio's idea was that "the message shall come from on high," Sheldon said.
The flight cost about $400, Sheldon said. "That's not much at all to make the point we want to make," he said. "We're looking at a loss of religious liberties.
"The nation was built on religious fervor and on a commitment to God. I think it is evil to say that an invocation or prayer violates constitutional rights," he said.
Before taking off for the 60-mile flight from his base at Chino Airport, Tom King, the pilot of the plane, said he told the protest organizers that "if I saw anyone else graduating en route, I would fly around them, too."
State Assemblywoman Marian W. La Follette, (R-Northridge), gave her blessing to the action from her Sacramento office. "I think it's outrageous that the school board would capitulate to the ACLU, representing one parent--an atheist," she said. "When he (Sheldon) told me this was one way of countering the board's decision to keep God out of the commencement ceremonies, I said it must have been a God-given idea."
Carol Sobel, the ACLU lawyer who represented Brodhead in the lawsuit and negotiations, called the protest "sort of amusing."
"I think if that's how they want to spend their money that's fine. They're certainly protected by principles of free speech," Sobel said.
James Brodhead, an actor who lives in Sherman Oaks, said he filed his suit because there had been a prayer at his older son's graduation from the school two years ago and the principal declined to assure him that there would be none this year.
An hour before the ceremony Wednesday, Principal Jane Godfrey said, "It's business as usual at Van Nuys High. If the rest of the world wants to make a lot of noise, that's their business."
After the commencement, Daniel Brodhead's mother had no comment on the protest. "It was a beautiful graduation," she said, adding that her son had gone to a party.