Our Humanity, Naturally

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How to slap Thomas Jefferson in the face

Religious Right spites religious minorities, imposes prayer on public ceremonies

When it comes to prayer at public school graduation ceremonies, applicable constitutional law is very clear: school-sponsored prayers are simply not allowed. The issue was decided unambiguously by the United States Supreme Court in the 1992 case of Lee vs. Weisman, a decision wherein Justice Kennedy pointed out that school-sponsored prayers can be construed by some "to be an attempt to employ the machinery of the State to enforce a religious orthodoxy."

This of course is a basic question of church-state separation, but it also relates to freedom of conscience and equal rights for religious minorities. A graduation ceremony is a landmark event in life, Justice Kennedy said, and religious dissenters should not have to endure a religious exercise that they find objectionable as the price of participation.

Rather than respect the court's ruling, some conservative Christians have developed a strategy to disregard it. The mature, responsible way of mixing prayer with graduation, of course, would be to have local churches or religious groups conduct private prayer exercises that could take place before or after the graduation ceremony and be attended on a voluntary basis. But this is not adequate for some on the Religious Right, who feel that anything less than a public display of their faith, in full view of all members of the community, is an injustice.

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Thus, to bypass the law, religious conservatives have begun hijacking graduation ceremonies via student speakers who launch into unscheduled prayers during their allotted speaking time. In this manner, the prayer is not technically "school-sponsored" but instead is conducted by a renegade student, and therefore the government (i.e. the school) can maintain "plausible deniability" in the face of allegations that it unlawfully inserted prayer into its ceremony.

This was done in Louisiana recently in response to a request by a student there to keep the ceremony secular, as required by law. Not only was the secular student, Damon Fowler, harassed, threatened, and ostracized for asking the school to respect the law by keeping prayer out of the graduation ceremony, but his class went ahead with the prayer anyway via the stealth tactic outlined above. A student was supposed to announce a moment of silence, but instead broke into a public prayer to Jesus her savior. When the prayer was finished, the auditorium erupted into applause and cheers, as if somehow the defiant prayer was an indication that the forces of good had triumphed. A video of the event is here:

Obviously, in that Louisiana school, respect for the religious minority and church-state separation were irrelevant to many of the Christian majority. Even setting aside the possibility that a conspiracy to inject the prayer may have had official sanction at some level, there has been no indication that the school has apologized to the secular student (who was reportedly in the auditorium during the fiasco) or disciplined the student who improperly injected the prayer into the ceremony.

And this event apparently is not isolated. The same thing may happen this week at a graduation event in South Carolina, where a similar student request for legal compliance was met with an unclear response. The school administration said that it would refrain from an official prayer, but the superintendent simultaneously declared that he couldn't be responsible for what student speakers do. The news story here reports that the superintendent promised there would be no school-sponsored prayer, but simultaneously reminded graduates, particularly those speaking, that "the views expressed during student-led messages are solely those of the speaker and do not reflect the approval or disapproval of Laurens School District 55 or the school administration."

This is, of course, a not-so-subtle wink and nod to potential proselytizers - go ahead and pray to Jesus, and don't worry about getting disciplined for stomping on the rights of those who disagree with your theology. Such is the state of Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state during the graduation season of 2011. Surely, though Jefferson has been dead for almost two hundred years, the Religious Right has found a post-mortem way of slapping him in the face.

Copyright 2011 Dave Niose

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Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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