The high school graduation that prompted a lawsuit seeking to guarantee a religion-free ceremony got under way at Van Nuys High School on Wednesday afternoon beneath a circling aircraft pulling a banner that read, "God Bless the Graduates '86."
The banner was in protest of a Board of Education decision to forbid religious references in commencement ceremonies throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Atheist James Brodhead, whose son was one of the 515 Van Nuys High graduates, filed suit against the district May 22 asking that prayers be prohibited. On June 3, the board provided 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 graduates, clad in billowing blue and white robes, filed across the school's football field, the small, single-engine plane and banner flew overhead, bringing loud cheers and applause from the audience below.
Then, as if on cue, the school band broke into the traditional "Pomp and Circumstance." And when the Pledge of Allegiance was recited, several students yelled out the phrase "under God."
When Brodhead's son, Daniel, received his diploma, he was greeted mostly by cheers. But several demonstrators stood outside the main gate holding signs reading "Congratulations Atheist."
Watching from outside the stadium was one of the masterminds of the high-flying protest, the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Anaheim-based California Coalition for Traditional Values, which lobbies for everything from school prayer to a strong national defense.
"I decided to get involved after I read the (school) 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."
The flight cost about $400.
"That's not much at all to make the point we want to make," Sheldon 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."