Graduation and Prayer: Some Schools Are Stuck In The Last Century2 May, 2009
I graduated from high school 24 years ago (it should have been 25 years ago, but I ‘enjoyed’ high school so much I stayed for an extra year). My high school, a public high school out in Western Maryland, was a bit redneck. And quite religious. I never fit in all that well — I wasn’t related to half the school, I didn’t go to the right church (or, really, any church), I didn’t have a German last name, I wasn’t racist.
When graduation came around, I felt an indescribable joy — I would be out of that place. I just had to go through graduation, and then I would be in college.
I got my graduation schedule. Tuesday night, Baccalaureate. Friday night, graduation. So I went home and asked the obvious question: “What the hell is baccalaureate?” It turned out it was a religious service to bless the graduates before sending them out into the real world. I decided I did not want to participate.
The next day in school, I knocked, walked into the vice-principal’s office and said, “Vice Principle, I do not wish to participate in the baccalaureate service.”
He peered over his trifocals and said, “Well, Billy, it’s part of the graduation experience.”
“I don’t want to participate.”
“Are you sure, Billy?”
“Yeah. I want to participate in the graduation ceremony, but I’m gonna skip the baccalaureate.”
“There’s the problem, Billy. If you want to walk across the stage, you have to participate in graduation.”
“And I will. I just won’t be there on Tuesday.”
The vice-principal smiled (his smile belonged on a person who enjoyed tearing the heads off of small fuzzy animals (scary)). “Ah, and there’s the rub. Tuesday night is part of graduation. If you’re not there, you won’t be there on Friday.”
“We can’t be letting students pick and choose what they want to do. That would be chaos.”
So I went to the religious service. I sat through a fire-and-brimstone sermon given by the pastor of an independent Bible Baptist church (he dropped out of the Southern Baptist Coalition because they were too liberal). He told us that we were sinners. That we would only find success through the intercession of the one loving god. That we could only be accepted by god if we make a personal relationship with Jesus the center of our life. That we would burn in hell for eternity if we failed to take advantage of this life choice. That we must accept the Bible as the literal and true word of god. If we do these things, we will be successful. If not, we will become alcoholic drug addicts, be unhappy, and, basically, be bad, bad people.
I hated every second of it. But I gritted my teeth, sat through it, laughed inside at the (to my eyes) psychotic reaction of some of my classmates, and wondered why I hadn’t brought a book.
Friday night graduation, of course, included two more prayers. None were as offensive as the hour-long diatribe to which we were subjected earlier in the week.
In retrospect, I should have asked the vice-principal for that in writing. Then I should have called a civil rights lawyer. Today, of course, no public school district in the nation would try to inject religion into the graduation, right?
Today, in the Chillicothe Gazette, a senior who is Wiccan wrote a letter to the editor, expressing his fear that his high school graduation experience will be “tainted,” if the school does not change its policy of beginning and ending commencement with Christian prayers.
He writes, “I hold no animosities toward Christians; in fact, most of my best friends are followers of Christ. I feel that during graduation ceremonies when the entire crowd is asked to stand and join in prayer, if I remain seated I will be ridiculed for not standing and showing respect for someone else’s religion. I feel at the same time that if I do stand, then I am submitting to and accepting something that goes against what I believe.”
Jacob Davis goes on in his letter to cite a U.S. Supreme Court decision that explicitly banned coercive prayers at public school graduations. The high court said in Lee v. Weisman that “’[e]veryone knows that in our society and in our culture high school graduation is one of life’s most significant occasions….[T]he Constitution forbids the State to exact religious conformity from a student as a price of attending her own high school graduation.”
Americans United filed a lawsuit last week in federal court to block a Wisconsin public school district from holding graduation ceremonies in the sanctuary of an evangelical church. AU is representing a graduating senior and several families in the district whose constitutional rights would be violated if the school fails to honor the separation of church and state.
The church where the graduation is to be held, Elmbrook Church, displays a large cross (15 to 20 feet tall, and seven to 10 feet wide) in its sanctuary. The cross would likely appear in any photo of a student receiving his or her diploma.
The school claims this is the only comfortable venue to hold the graduation, although in AU’s complaint, we list several other venues, including a local Convention Center that can easily seat even more people comfortably.
Schools that push religion at graduation have not only violated the Constitution, they have shown they care little about respecting the feelings of all students. Even if a majority of students don’t oppose holding a graduation ceremony in the church and support Christian prayers, schools are not permitted to forget the rights of the minority students.
After all, they earned that diploma just as much as anyone else.
The school claims this is the only comfortable venue to hold the graduation. . . . I guess the school doesn’t worry too much about the comfort of religious minorities. And I guess the world has not changed as much as I had hoped.