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Last year, federal judge Fred Biery presided over a school law case involving the hot button issue of prayer at high school graduation ceremonies.  Media attention to the case provoked death threats to Judge Biery and calls for his removal by politicians such as Newt Gingrich.  In the midst of the storm, two lawyers represented the parties with composure and professionalism.  A grateful Judge Biery noted this in his written opinion approving the settlement in the case of Schulz v. Medina Valley ISD.  Then Judge Biery went a step further.  He awarded The Atticus Finch Award to Greg Lipper, who represented the plaintiffs, and Craig Wood, the attorney for Medina Valley ISD.

Wood, a shareholder in the San Antonio office of Walsh, Anderson, Gallegos, Green and Treviño, P.C., was honored and somewhat embarrassed by the attention.  Wood grew up in the Oklahoma Panhandle, where his father served as district attorney for four counties for 37 years.  The elder Wood passed away last year.  Craig noted that his dad “would have been very proud” to see his son receive this honor.

Harper Lee’s famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, introduced Atticus Finch, lawyer and single dad, through the eyes of his observant young daughter, Scout.  As Judge Biery noted, “Atticus Finch did his duty, as every lawyer must when our oath to the Rule of Law and the Constitution requires us to do so.”  The Medina Valley case, according to Judge Biery, was “that kind of case and those kinds of lawyers: Craig Wood, who advocated for First Amendment freedom of religious expression, and Greg Lipper who advocated for First Amendment freedom from government imposition of particular sectarian practices.”  Judge Biery stated that the lawyers worked toward a resolution of the case that achieved “reasonable balance between competing First Amendment rights.”

Wood said he was honored to be mentioned in the same league as “such a noble character as Atticus Finch.  I’ve seen the movie several times and completely enjoyed it.”

The case, according to Wood, “pitted two parts of the First Amendment directly against each other: the Free Speech Clause versus the Establishment Clause.  Unlike some lawsuits, the Medina Valley case involved two parties who were both ‘right’ about their respective positions.  Each side represented an important fundamental right that we enjoy as Americans: one the right of free speech and one the right of freedom from government establishment of religion.  Rather than treating this as a ‘fight’ between two litigants, each seeking to vanquish the other, the attorneys worked cooperatively to structure a settlement that would protect the First Amendment  rights of both parties.  I believe the Award was meant to recognize the efforts made by counsel cooperatively working for the preservation of these rights.”

For more on this case, see our previous web exclusive detailing the settlement:   And look for all the important school law cases in future issues of The Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest. 

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