Graduation and Prayer: Some Schools Are Stuck In The Last Century

2 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?

From Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

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.



  1. I guess I was fortunate, then. Even though I was a Christian at the time, I graduated from high school in June, 1972, and couldn’t want to get away, so I opted out of the entire last week of school, which for seniors was mostly goof-off and make-ready-for-graduation stuff. No cap-and-gown, no ceremony, just a free week to myself before shipping out to the Air Force. They mailed my diploma the week after. When my children graduated, their respective ceremonies were held at the Compaq Center, with gobs and gobs of Jesus-y religion and prayers. I told my daughter that it was wrong, and she said, “Nobody really cares, it’s just a ceremony.” Hmmm.

  2. When my youngest son graduated they had no invocation, just the ‘Moment Of Silence’.

    Most of the town was not best pleased, and expressed it in several diatribes to our local fish wrapper. It appeared that lack of some brass throated,leather lunged clergy person, the more cake brained the better, was essential for the dignity of the ceremony, and every kid there would doubtless fail because gawd wasn’t invited, and it would serve everyone right so, so nyah, nyah, nyah.

    That was the general flavor of comments, anyway.

    My son figured that if they were REALLY interested in dignity they wouldn’t have made them wear those stupid looking mortar boards.

  3. Ray: For some reason, I actually wanted to walk across that stage. I figured after 5 years of high school, I deserved it. As for your daughter’s statement, that brings up a whole ‘nother subject: the constant insertion of Christianity into the public square has diluted whatever message they were trying to send and made it into just some annoying background noise.

    Sarge: I have no problem with a moment of silence, as long as the government does not tell anyone how to use that moment of silence. And I hope you told your son that the mortarboard was TRADITION!!!!!!. Then again, injecting religion into everything is also a tradition, so . . . .

  4. Hopefully one day a story like yours will be just that, a story, one about a time a younger generation will have trouble believing ever existed like stories of women not being allowed to vote, blacks not allowed to go to certain schools or even bathrooms, and gays not being allowed to marry. They’ll struggle to believe you’re telling the truth, because to them such a story would be incomprehensible.

  5. Philly: And I’ve heard Christians claim that atheists cannot have hope. That sounds like a good dream.

  6. When I was in High School choir, we routinely sang very religious songs, especially at the “Winter Concert” which was, of course, a Christmas concert not so subtly disguised. My senior year, my best friend, who happened to be Jewish, very rightly protested the praising of Jesus in public school choir concerts. Because our choir teacher was a fundie, he dismissed her complaint until the vice-principal forced him to take an action that wouldn’t result in the ACLU suing the whole school district. And then of course, when he told the students that we had to change the words to make it religiously neutral (it was still disturbingly religious), you should have heard the gasps of dismay and anger that was directed at her (because obviously it was her, as no one else was disrespectful enough of the ONE TRUE RELIGION (you know, Methodist, Mormon, Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Cornerstone Foursquare, Evangelical Free) to not want to praise the holy name of Jesus than the dirty Jew girl). Many students thought that if she didn’t want to sing about Jesus than she should just not sing in the concert, or be in choir at all, rather than ruin their annual public school Jesus-fest . Because (of course), the majority should get to make the rules and exclude the minority from any event, (or civil right) that they wish. Because they’re the majority, and that’s DEMOCRACY!!

    Oh, and this was all in very rural Wisconsin. Very rural. Did I mention it was rural?

  7. PhillyChief and others,

    Do you really believe that America is going to be the dominant nation in twenty years?

    I think some of you have an overly optimistic view of people.

    Each generation has its share of wars and troubles.

    The morals of China may become more standard throughout the world. Islam is on the rise and its culture will exert more and more influence in Europe and maybe Canada. (We don’t know the end of the present struggle with radical Islam.) Will Saudi Arabia continue exporting Wahibism around the world?

    Each person in this country is carrying his or her percentage of the US government debt. If memory serves me accurately it is above $30,000.00 a person.

    This country may lose more of its dominance as San Francisco gets leveled – or LA could get leveled. Even the tall buildings in Seattle could get knocked down and our NorthWest coast could get hammered by a devastating tsunami.

    Also, Iran, Pakistan, a nuclear al quida or north Korea could be in a position to EMP the US. In that case only those who live on the land and can defend themselves may survive. (Is the government doing anything to prepare for EMP beyond hardening some military facilities??)

    An enemy will attack the weakest point.

    All this blubbering about having to listen to a sick, wrong prayer will seem inconsequential.

  8. Well aren’t you a ray of fucking sunshine, Thom. Jesus Christ!

    There was a saying back in the day when I lived in KC. ‘If’ took a shit and died. You want to sit and worry about ‘if’s? Knock yourself out, but I’d rather concern myself with what’s real, what’s here and now.

    Buck up, Buttercup.

  9. Craig: Rural America has its good points. But it also tends to have a great many un- or ill-educated bigots. Our school performances used historic (pre-1950) religious music. Some of it was even good.

    Thomas: And if America stopped trying to be the dominant nation, stopped trying to be exceptional, we most likely would remain a powerful (economically, socially and morally) nation. If we keep throwing our weight around like an eleven-year-old with a beard, we could actually accomplish great things.

    Philly: And if wishes were horses, we’d be kneedeep in shit.

  10. They’re right about not some of us not having hope. The guy I trained horses for used to admonish one to hope/wont/wish in one hand, shit in the other and see which one fills the fastest.

    Hope never accomplished jack.

  11. Sarge: And neither does prayer.

  12. Billy, America has often thrown its weight around – in the interest of Americans. Some of the good that this country does is often linked to domestic interests as well. For example if we give lots of food aid to African countries – it might be motivated by a desire to get campaign contributions from Ag-business. Meanwhile, in Africa the poor farmer finds that he can’t compete against all this American generosity – no one wants to buy his crops. He no longer grows extra food and the local economy suffers – as does he.

    The US and the European countries give subsidies to their farmers that those in the third world can not compete with.

    We force other countries to fight against the drug cartels that American citizens are funding through purchases of illegal drugs.

    It is interesting though that US meddling often produces an angry populace in another country. It isn’t always the case – and I am not certain where the correct balance is in every case.

    For example it almost universally thought in this country that the Vietnam war was a failure. The US did lose (or withdraw) and several dominoes fell after including Cambodia. In Cambodia the country of three million people had one million killed in communist purges. If the US stuck it out after the Tet offensive which was a military last ditch effort by the vietcong that weakened them tremendously – the country might have been more stable. On the other hand the government that the US was supporting was corrupt and not well liked. Some experts feel that if the US did not fight in Vietnam that the Soviet Union would have determined that we would not be willing to fight to defend Western Europe.

    We came to aid of Afghanistan to drive out the Soviet Union. Our aid went through Pakistan, Pakistan took all the credit – the people of Afghanistan turned to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden found a home. We defended Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein and later watched the terrorists from Saudi Arabia attack on 9/11.

    However, would it have been better if the US embraced President Jimmy Carter’s plan to achieve energy independence and we then weaned ourselves off of foreign sources? Jimmy Carter made a great speech to the American people and got the American people behind him. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill a consummate life-long politician contacted Jimmy Carter and told him that if he wanted the bill to go through he had to contact this list of politicians to make it happen. Jimmy Carter arrogantly told Tip that he didn’t need to do that because “The American People” were behind him. Jimmy Carter failed to push the measure through – the bill died in congress.

    Prior to the gulf war columnist THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN made an argument that getting rid of Saddam Hussein would bring democracy to the Middle East.

    The US pushed for elections in the Palestinian territories and then we were left bewildered by the success of Hamas. We often don’t realize that when people get sick of corruption (like the Palestinians were with Fatah) that they will elect someone else. At this point there is a lot of frustration in Pakistan with the leaders of the country. I think Afghanistan may drift back toward the Taliban if the conditions in their country don’t improve.

    Americans often complain about how much money we give other countries – and they don’t realize that we actually don’t give a whole lot through our government. Organizations like the Gates foundation really give a lot.

    More recently, President Bush showed a lot of leadership in combating AIDS in Africa. This has won him and the American people a lot of good will in Africa.

    So, I bring these up – not arguing that I’ve got the correct analysis on every point – someone here may have some additional thoughts. Neither, as I said do I know what the correct balance is on every matter of American military intervention. There are times when it might be worthwhile to intervene militarily.

    Other times like in Indonesia after the tsunami American ships and helicopters took the lead in supplying humanitarian aid and this was responsible for halting Indonesia’s slide into radical Islam.

    That’s it for now.

  13. Sarge,

    That’s what my Pop always used to say when I was a kid. Oddly enough, he’s quite religious. Go figure.

  14. […] shares a high school horror story quite likely shared by the majority of American graduates. Graduation and Prayer: Some Schools Are Stuck In The Last Century at (((Billy))) The Atheist. He told us that we were sinners. That we would only find success […]

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