Prayer protest at graduation: Fighting over God and country

Sunday, May 28, 2006

When more than 200 students stood up to recite the Lord’s Prayer at their high school graduation last week in Russell Springs, Ky., they were rewarded with a standing ovation from the overflowing crowd of family and friends.

A prayer demonstration wasn’t on the program. But students had decided earlier in the day to organize a protest after a federal judge ordered school officials not to allow a scheduled prayer at the ceremony. The court ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by a student challenging the school’s practice of annual graduation prayer delivered by the student chaplain.

Applause for the students continues to reverberate this week across the conservative Christian blogosphere. On the surface, the story has all the elements of a culture-war rallying cry: Courageous students stand up to “activist judge” in defense of “religious freedom and free speech.”

But take a closer look. What exactly were those students standing up for in Russell Springs? The right of the majority to impose a Christian prayer on the minority? And why did most of the audience cheer them on? To congratulate the kids for using prayer to score political points against a federal judge? To humiliate the student who brought the lawsuit?

Whatever the motives, most of the audience was clearly angry and frustrated by having its prayer taken away. For years, Russell County High School seniors have elected a “class chaplain” — currently Megan Chapman — who gives the prayer at graduation. This year a student (who tried to remain anonymous, but was reportedly booed at rehearsal) filed suit to stop the practice. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly declared school-sponsored prayers unconstitutional, even when delivered by a student.

When the seniors heard about the lawsuit, they attempted to cure the First Amendment problem by re-electing Chapman to give a “message,” ostensibly leaving it to her what the message would be. But the judge wasn’t impressed by the last-minute switch, perhaps seeing it as a fig leaf for keeping the prayer. The court canceled the prayer, setting the stage for the student protest.

It’s important to note (for all those school districts contemplating solutions involving “student-initiated” prayer) that the fix proposed by the Russell County seniors might have worked — but only if they had done it earlier, if they hadn’t tried to turn the chaplain into a messenger overnight, and hadn’t set it up to be a prayer. That’s because guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education in 2003 suggest that student speakers may be allowed to give religious or secular messages as long as the student speaker is selected on the basis of “genuinely neutral” criteria and retains “primary control” over the content of the presentation.

Not everyone agrees the DOE guidance accurately interprets current law. But even under those guidelines, neither Russell County school officials nor the senior class can create a process to ensure that a student graduation speaker offers a prayer.

If proponents of graduation prayer in Russell Springs were willing to look at other options, there are legal and fair ways for religious people to acknowledge God during graduation festivities: A moment of silence gives everyone an opportunity to pray (or not) without having to participate in someone else’s prayer. A community-organized baccalaureate that is voluntarily attended allows people to worship and pray in any way they choose and as much as they like. Both solutions accommodate the majority while protecting the minority.

For some people, however, it’s all or nothing. They see graduation prayer as a symbolic act that proclaims who we are as a nation. In other words, the conflict isn’t really about “free speech” or even a 60-second prayer; it’s about who gets to define what kind of country we are.

What would happen if a Baptist family in Russell Springs were suddenly transported to, say, a school district in Dearborn, Mich., with a large population of Muslim Americans? How would they feel about an Islamic prayer at their child’s graduation? Or how about 200 Muslim students standing to recite the Quran during the ceremony?

Here’s the American reality: We’re all a religious minority somewhere in this country. How we treat people where we’re in the majority helps determine how we’ll be treated where we’re in the minority.

It would appear that for most students and parents in Russell Springs, silent prayer is not enough. A baccalaureate with sermons and prayers is not enough. Even the fact that Megan Chapman expressed her religious views in her graduation speech (which she did) is not enough. Apparently, only by giving the majority the “right” to impose prayer (their prayer) on everyone else will these students and parents be satisfied.

Fortunately, there is no such right. The First Amendment protects us from the tyranny of the majority — at least as long as we have judges with the courage to stand up for religious freedom.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. E-mail:

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