Saturday, June 4, 2011

Three Stories of School-Sponsored Prayer

Dear Citizens of the USA,

The separation of church and state is a vital concept that is used to protect the secular foundation of our government.  Having (and applying) a secular government prevents abuse of religious power and prevents discrimination of many kinds.  Any attempt to infuse governmental agencies with religious agendas, motivations, or exemptions is an affront against this vital concept and all of those whom it protects.

Since the 60's, courts have consistently ruled against school-sponsored prayer at graduations and otherwise.

At a high school in Louisiana, the traditional Christian prayer at graduation was challenged by a graduating atheist, Damon Fowler.  He pointed out the illegality of the prayer and the superintendent agreed and removed it from the program.  The remainder of this story plays out as a complete debacle, with educators and community members directly insulting Damon and presenting themselves as clueless about American law and philosophy.

Importantly, at the graduation rehearsal the night before, the student who was to lead a moment of silence also led a Christian prayer, specifically stating, "I would like to give thanks to the god that has made the class of 2011 a success."  At graduation, almost identical events took place.

(For the record, the atheist community pulled together to fund a scholarship for Damon, who has been disowned. Organized by Hemant Mehta, they raised over $30,000.  Awesome.)

In the most kind terms I can possibly muster, the way that this played out, with its moments of silence and its no-approval-needed student speeches, presents us with the question of exactly what qualifies as endorsement by a school.  It seems currently (barely) legal for a school to say, "We won't require speeches to be approved ahead of time, and students can therefore say whatever they want and we won't get in the way."  However, when it is completely clear that a student is going to lead an audience in prayer, it is transitively clear that anyone in the audience who is not a part of that tradition will be singled out and likely considered inferior to the majority.  When a school does nothing to prevent such things, doesn't that seem to endorse the discriminatory viewpoints involved?  Yes, it does.

I attended a high school in a rather conservative and Christian area for one year.  I was involved in choir, of course.  The choral department hosted an annual banquet toward the end of the year for its students and their families.  I heard that a friend's father, a pastor, had been asked to lead the prayer at the banquet.  Knowing that since this was to be a school-sponsored event such a prayer would be illegal, but also knowing that the faculty involved wouldn't be receptive to any discussion, I went to the principal.  I brought him printouts of Supreme Court decisions to prove my point and within days, the prayer was cancelled.  I had disappointed a number of friends but had done the right thing.

Alas, as the event approached, I heard through the grapevine that one of my religious friends intended to stand at her table and lead the audience in a prayer.  I would be shocked if the choral faculty did not also know about this ahead of time.  At the banquet, she stood and led prayer, and I watched a room of bowed heads speak their "Amen."

What if, at Damon's school, a Muslim student had spontaneously led a prayer?  She could have said, "I would like to give thanks to Allah, the god that has made the class of 2011 a success."  How would the school administration have reacted?  What if a Buddhist had spoken?  A Wiccan?

I now daydream of what could of been had I asked that question in high school before the banquet.  My friend would have stood and led a Christian prayer, and I would have promptly stood to introduce a Jewish friend to lead the audience in prayer.  Immediately after that prayer, I would have introduced a Muslim friend to lead a prayer.  Immediately after that, I would have introduced a Buddhist friend to lead a prayer, one accompanied by Tibetan chant that we would've played from a boom box.

I can't imagine how the audience would have reacted, but I feel like that's what it takes to actually make a point.  I suspect the news media would have been engrossed in such a story.  Unfortunately, I did not have such a collection of friends of various faiths, nor the guts to do what needed to be done.

A similar story is occurring in Texas right now.  This one went to court and the agnostic family of plaintiffs won, but then the ruling was overturned yesterday at a federal appeals court.

Update: This Texas graduation was reportedly rife with prayer. This serves as a poignant, though frustrating, example of why this entanglement of school and religion must stop.

When governmental agencies present a message, such as by a speaker they select, that is religious in nature or purpose, they are separating the recipients of the message into those who agree and those who do not agree.  When such a separation is created in the minds of the people there is at best an implication, at worst a declaration, that those who are not included in the group of agreement are inferior citizens and people.  Such presentations imbue the government with religious perspective that by its very nature divides a people against each other.

In more straightforward terms; every time a school sponsors a prayer, even if it is non-denominational, every non-religious citizen and I are being sent the message that we are inferior to those who agree with the beliefs presented.  This is abhorrent and should cease immediately.


  1. Personally, I agree with you in regards to the core message of your post. Religious rites of any sort should have no place at a high school graduation ceremony because it inherently ostracize the non-religious students attending. But I would argue that banning religious observance of any kind attacks the beliefs of religious students, which infringes on their rights as well. Frankly it is a situation in which both sides may be in the wrong, constitutionally speaking.

    I would like to also put that for some people, high school graduation is a true accomplishment. Sometimes it is easy to forget that, especially when one lives in a society that culturally mandates college education. Some students struggle through a lot of hardship to obtain their high school diplomas, and if they relied on their deity (or deities) for help and guidance to obtain it, should they not be allowed to show their appreciation in prayer?

  2. They absolutely should be and are allowed to show their appreciation in prayer, but they needn't do it in a manner that pressures others to join with the clout of the school behind them. They may pray during moments of silence, they may pray on their own before, after, or during the ceremony, they may pray as they approach the podium.

    I also recognize the validity of referencing a deity in one's speech, because that is purely personal expression. A message ceases to be personal when it asks others to join, thereby establishing a religious division among those present.

  3. The distinction that you draw between expressing one's own religious beliefs and soliciting others to join in the practice of those beliefs (while at a publicly sponsored event) is a good one. But there is another distinction here that requires consideration. In many cases, the school entities in question have done more than simply to sit back while student-led prayer spontaneously developed.

    This, in many instances, is more than a case of school districts not requiring the approval of speeches. Instead, the school districts have knowingly allowed student-led prayers to be organized in direct response to school-sponsored prayers being disallowed--sometimes even with the encouragement of the school through members of its faculty. There is, predictably, no non-Christian prayer organized as an alternative to the once-institutionalized prayer portion of these ceremonies. Where is the covert encouragement of those efforts in the absence of school-sponsored prayer? It is notably (and, perhaps, intentionally) missed. And so, in essence, nothing functionally changes in response to a court's application of the Constitution.

  4. Anonymous, I have had suspicions that align with your statements. In the case of the Texas story, about which I am about to insert an update, I am particularly suspicious of faculty encouragement and/or organization. If hard evidence of such a thing comes to light in court, I hope it will have the impact of forcing courts to do the right thing with more solid precedent.

    Students and families need to repeatedly stand up against school-sponsored prayer until things functionally change for the better.

  5. Some excellent points. I also believe that when Angela Hildebrand chose to pray in Jesus name, she broke the law.
    The Shultzes actually won their case, in the short run, because the school was forced to change their program and remove the invocation/benediction, thus making their lawsuit moot (even though they played a shell game). If the Shultzes now choose (I hope they do) to sue the school because the graduation prayers from more than one person were sectarian in nature, I think they'd win.