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To the front of the bus

National | Could the spontaneous prayer at a Maryland graduation ceremony spark a new civil-rights revolution?

Issue: "Life of a warrior," June 12, 1999

Something quite remarkable happened last week at a high school graduation in Calvert County, Md. It wasn't that the American Civil Liberties Union had intervened on behalf of a lone student who said he would be offended if a fellow graduate went ahead with her plans to deliver an invocation at commencement. The religious version of "ethnic cleansing" happens all the time, from the courthouse to the schoolhouse. Seventeen-year-old Julie Schenk, who wanted to deliver the invocation, compromised and announced that she would instead call for a "time for reflection" that did not mention God. That seemed fine with everybody, including the ACLU. But when Miss Schenk asked for 30 seconds of silence and the crowd of 4,000 rose, a single loud male voice began reciting the Lord's Prayer, which begins, "Our Father, who art in heaven." The prayer was quickly picked up by others in the audience until it rolled like thunder across the room. The student who had protested the offering of an audible prayer, 18-year-old Nick Becker, walked out. When he tried to reenter to receive his diploma, he was barred by authorities under a school policy that forbids students from returning to an assembly once they have left. Mr. Becker has been described as having an independent streak. Last year he was forced to wash his hair when he came to school with it in spikes resembling the Statue of Liberty, and he had also refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and was about to be disciplined when the ACLU intervened. He was put in a patrol car until commencement ended. Mr. Becker was also barred from a post-graduation boat cruise that was limited to those who had participated in the ceremony. What amazes about this incident is that the audience reaction seems to have been spontaneous. Indeed, an ACLU spokesperson appeared frustrated when she noted the corporate prayer wasn't initiated by graduates or school officials. Nor did the prayer specifically mention "God," only "Our Father," so technically it might be said to have been in compliance. Perhaps this is the "virtue" empire striking back at the ravenously and increasingly secularized culture that seems powerless to stem the tide of violence and corruption among us. For decades we have been told that the price we all must pay for a healthy First Amendment is the toleration of the most disgusting filth oozing through every pore of our society and culture. Creeps, louts, pornographers, blasphemers, alternative lifestylers, fornicators, adulterers, liars, slanderers, and others enjoy the full protection of the law. But those who believe in God and order their lives accordingly, and who wish to participate in the pluralism and diversity that they hear so much about (but which never seems to apply to them) are increasingly losing their rights to be heard in the same public places occupied by those dedicated to tearing down, not building up, society. What these Maryland parents and friends of graduates discovered was a power they had forgotten they had. Frustrated by the aimlessness of Washington and its inability to do anything except focus on the self-preservation and survival of the politically unfit, the audience at the Calvert County graduation decided to practice what "We the people" actually means. As their forebears did with immoral and tyrannical British rule, they stood up and spoke out for, and to, an Authority higher than the state. When those Marylanders were told they had no right to speak of God publicly, they chose to speak to God. When Rosa Parks decided she would not obey an immoral law that required her to sit at the back of the bus because her skin color was not white, she inspired the civil-rights movement. Those prayer protesters are the Rosa Parkses of the secularist '90s. When the people speak, there's nothing the ACLU or anyone else can do about it.
-© 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas

Cal, whose syndicated column appears on WORLD's website and in more than 500 newspapers, is a frequent contributor to WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It. Follow Cal on Twitter @CalThomas.

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