After the St. Johns County School Board voted recently against allowing high school graduation prayer in St. Augustine, Fla., a Colorado pastor is offering a $1,000 reward to the first student to flout school policy and break the law.
A state law enacted last year lets school districts adopt a policy allowing students to have an open forum/mic at any school event, including graduation, to deliver an "inspirational" message. The goal of bill supporters was to get prayer in schools under the free speech guise, and in fact, the bill's first drafts explicitly stated that, until it was pointed out that such a provision was clearly unconstitutional.
Gordon Klingenschmitt, a former U.S. Navy chaplain who operates Pray In Jesus' Name Ministries in Colorado Springs, says this on his website: "Our ministry is hereby offering a $1,000 scholarship to the FIRST high school student who prays either the Lord's prayer (Our Father...) or says a sincere prayer ending 'in Jesus' name,' on the school microphone at his or her graduation ceremony in St. John's County, FL school District #2."
No Florida school board has approved such a policy to date.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel had written a letter to the school district's attorney March 20 to outline potential problems with an open forum policy. "First, the school will lose all control over the message. Second, the nascent history of the putative policy shows an explicit intent to have prayer in school. The board cannot escape this history and the religious purpose puts the policy firmly in Establishment Clause, not free speech, jurisprudence."
Seidel added, "Once the board passes this policy, it will have no ability to police student speech. Students could seize the opportunity to talk about anything — sex, gay marriage, politics or religion. They could denigrate other religions and declare that only Christians will go to heaven, or that only Muslims, or Buddhists or atheists will have an eternal reward."
The school board that first approves such a policy "is asking for a lawsuit," Seidel said.
"The push to have this policy is clearly religious; in fact, the push is not for an open forum but graduation prayer. The supporters’ buttons call for 'Graduation Prayer' with praying hands next to a mortarboard cap and diploma. It also calls for 'Freedom From Atheism,' ” Seidel wrote.
In a story in the St. Augustine Record headlined "Lawsuit threat sways school prayer action," Board Chairman Tommy Allen said, “No other school district has adopted this. If we did adopt it, we’d have to stand alone. If we do adopt it, then it will take money out of the classroom to defend."
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At the urging of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, numerous framed postings of the Ten Commandments have come down in Breathitt County Schools in Kentucky.
FFRF contacted the manager for the school system, Larry Hammond, on April 5 about the postings. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote that the display of the Ten Commandments throughout the schools was a flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause.
FFRF requested that all principals be directed to remove the Ten Commandments, noting that FFRF considers such egregious violations of conscience in public schools as requiring a speedy resolution.
“The Supreme Court ruled on this very issue over 30 years ago. It is unacceptable that a public school system would willfully violate the Constitution in this manner in 2013,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. The Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham in 1980 that posting the Ten Commandments in Kentucky schools was motivated by a religious purpose and is unconstitutional.
A Breathitt student informed FFRF on April 11 that many of the displays had been removed. Hammond, the manager of Breathitt County Schools, was appointed by the Kentucky Department of Education to oversee the troubled school system. It was reported that the Department of Education issued a statement agreeing that the displays violated the Constitution.