"Teenager of the Year" Ostracized for Halting Graduation Prayers
Cassie Gootee, a recent high school grad, gave this acceptance speech after being presented with a $1,000 freethought student activist award at the Year 2000 national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in St. Paul on Sept. 16.
Cassie and the Foundation extend their thanks to Foundation member Alan Snyder, who generously underwrote Cassie's monetary award.
By Cassie Gootee
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my story. It's been a great honor to be invited here to receive this award.
Probably one of the reasons for what I did is because almost everybody in my high school class was a Christian. Whenever I voiced a different viewpoint like saying "Happy Winter Solstice" instead of "Merry Christmas," people basically ignored it. Although I didn't broadcast it, my family has chosen much of the Native American path so I didn't relate to any of the Christian viewpoints.
I was President of the Student Body. The other Senior Officers and I were approached to talk about graduation preparations. We watched a video from the previous year to get an idea of what we were to do. I noticed that the graduation program had a "Benediction" and "Invocation" and that the video contained prayer and several references to God.
I went home and told my parents that I was concerned about prayer in the graduation ceremony. My parents said that this wasn't right and that gave me encouragement to question it.
At the next meeting of the Senior Officers I asked if it was necessary that we have prayer in the graduation ceremony. Nobody there said prayer really mattered to them but, because it was such a family gathering and a tradition, they would put in a prayer. Rather than confronting the officers, I decided to take the issue to the principal.
The next day I made an appointment to see the principal and told his secretary my purpose for wanting to see him. A few days went by and I didn't hear back from him. This was strange to me seeing how we had a pretty good relationship since I was Student Body President. So I went back to his office and he was there. I knocked on his door and walked in. I asked him if he had gotten my message about wanting to see him and he said "yes," but that he was busy and couldn't get back to me as soon as he wanted.
I told the principal that I was concerned that there was prayer in the graduation program and that they were using religious words like "benediction" and "invocation" instead of "opening" and "closing" in the program. Right away he took the defense. He said that this was tradition and that students are free to choose what they want to say. He said that it wasn't his responsibility to tell students not to say prayer at graduation.
I said that this wasn't fair because it is a public school and there shouldn't even be a question about prayer at a public school ceremony. He kept repeating that students were free to say what they liked and that he had no control over what they said. He told me to go to the girls who were preparing the benediction and invocation and to ask if they would please not put in anything religious. This still didn't settle the matter at hand because they shouldn't even have it as an option. I got the feeling that he was trying to "blow me off" and that just made me more determined.
I didn't talk to the girls because I didn't want to get them involved. It was between me and the Administration. Plus, I felt strongly that prayer was wrong and that it was simply nonnegotiable. So there wasn't any reason to try striking a compromise with the other students.
I went home and told my parents about the meeting and how unsuccessful it was and they became just as angry as I was. The next day I talked with the teacher who was advisor to our student government to see where I should go from this point. I explained to her the measures I had already taken. She said I was making too big a deal of this, that it was a tradition, and that the majority seemed to want prayer. Like the principal, she told me to talk with the other Senior Officers about it.
After no success with my adviser, I went to talk to the principal again. I told him that I saw no reason to talk to the other Senior Officers and that prayer should be removed from the program this year and all years to come. He repeated himself saying that he wasn't responsible for what other students said and that he didn't have the right to censor students' remarks. I told him that it was one thing for a student to blurt out a prayer or invocation to God unannounced. However, statements by students on the program were to be reviewed by four of our English professors and two of our administrators. To me, this meant that the school administration was directly involved and, therefore, was sanctioning prayer. The principal responded by repeating that he wasn't free to censor students.
After that meeting, I knew that I couldn't carry this forward without some outside help because the principal didn't want to stick his neck out by making a public decision that wouldn't be popular with everyone. So, I asked Bob Tiernan [an attorney who heads the Denver FFRF chapter] to go to our next meeting. Before we went to the meeting, Bob and I talked about the different legal cases and the Supreme Court rulings in this area. This was before the 6-3 decision in the Texas school prayer case so things were not absolutely crystal clear.
We met with the principal and brought out the cases that we felt supported our position. He argued against us by saying that the students were in charge of the program and, therefore, could say what they wanted. However, he did agree to take the words "Benediction" and "Invocation" out of the program.
I then went back to the Senior Officers and brought the subject up directly. They agreed not to say any prayers. However, because I had to bring it to the Senior Officers, it circulated throughout the school. A number of students came up to me and screamed directly in my face telling me how majority rules in this country, and that I had no right to take away tradition. They said that all their families were going to be there and would be disappointed with no prayer. I was thinking how they would react if I was to get up and start the ceremony off with a Native American drum chant. Other students told me that I had gone too far and couldn't understand why I was making such a big issue out of this.
What my classmates didn't understand was that it was my graduation too, and that I shouldn't have to feel like an outsider at my own graduation. I had to go through school putting up with Christian views my whole life, but this was too much. My family was going to be there too. Even taking out the emotional reason for my action, this was still against the law and could not be permitted under any circumstance.
In the middle of all that was going on, I attended my Senior Awards. My family was watching from the audience, as I received my award from the Elks Club as "Teenager of the Year." They were seated behind a group of parents that my family had known for years. These parents are all very conservative Christians, and knew from their kids what I was trying to do at the graduation ceremony. When I got up to receive my award, my family seemed to be the only ones clapping. We had known these parents for years, and they clapped for every student but me.
Well, I graduated and am happy to say that there was absolutely no prayer and that everything went well except, of course, there was a noticeable lack of applause when I received my diploma and an award that was presented.
Would I do this again? I sure would. It was painful and frustrating in many ways but I learned a lot from the experience and I learned that persistence can pay off. Hopefully, one day people will realize that their Christian viewpoint is not the only one.
Cassie Gootee graduated from Englewood High School, Colorado, this year. She was inducted into the National Honor Society and was president of the student body. She represented Colorado at the National Young Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C. Throughout high school, Cassie served as an active volunteer. Cassie plans to major in political science and government. She is receiving a "student activist award" for successfully objecting to organized prayers at her graduation.