As the school year reaches an end, the warm summer afternoons are filled with students walking onstage to pick up their diplomas, and the nightly news is filled with stories about scuffles over graduation prayers.
This year, the battlefield over prayer is at a rural Kentucky high school, where six students complained about the school tradition of student-led prayer during the ceremony. Lincoln County High School decided to go ahead with it and on Friday, class President John Hardwick prayed, “Thank you for helping us get here safely today, Lord, and thank you for the many blessings you have given us,” according to The Advocate-Messenger.
Many in the audience echoed the “Amen” and stood in a standing ovation. The school’s principal, Tim Godbey, told the newspaper that under the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, faculty members are not allowed to pray on school grounds, but the Constitution does not prohibit students from praying as long as they are not disruptive.
Local atheist activist Ricky Smith said he plans to notify the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) for violating the rights of students who are not Christians and equated the prayer to “religious bullying.”
But when it comes to bullying, the FFRF is more often the perpetrator.
Earlier this year, the school board in Lake City, Ark., voted to completely cancel its sixth-grade graduation after FFRF wrote a letter complaining about prayer during the ceremony. Over in Georgia, a Houston County high school decided to get rid of prayers and religious music after receiving a letter from the FFRF.
Jeremy Tedesco, senior legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, said groups like the FFRF lead schools to believe that any religious speech in school ceremonies is illegal, and consequently their knee-jerk reaction is to shut it down. But the students’ private speech is protected by the First Amendment, and when student graduation speakers are chosen through a neutral process, like by GPA or student council leadership, the student has autonomy from the school to speak about whatever they want.
“As long as the school not does not encourage them to include or exclude religious content, if the student decides to express their religious beliefs or say a prayer, no one would think the school sponsors religious belief,” Tedesco said. “It’s not the school speaking, it’s the private speech of the student.”
Before class President John Hardwick gave his speech last week in Kentucky, he expressed how important his faith is to him.
“It’s a way of celebrating an important event in our life with a prayer to something that has helped us and guided us through a major part of our life,” Hardwick said. “If I want to have a prayer, the school can’t stop me.”