Fighting graduation prayer, and winning – Harrison Hopkins

Harrison Hopkins, 18, who graduated in June 2011 from Laurens District High School in Laurens, S.C., gave this speech Oct. 8 at FFRF’s 34th annual convention in Hartford, Conn. Harrison, with FFRF’s help, had warded off a vote by his senior class to allow prayer at graduation, which caused a furor in the community and the region. He received a $1,000 FFRF student activist award at the convention.

Before I get into my story, I should probably tell you all a little about my religious background [pause. . .] Well, that was easy.

I was never forced to go to church, and I can’t say that I ever really believed. Sure, at the time, I would have called myself a Christian, but only because I didn’t know of anything else. It wasn’t until middle school that I found out about the term “atheist,” and then I finally knew what I could call myself.

Looking back, the only time church was ever suggested to me was during the summer when I would visit my grandma, but even then it wasn’t forced on me. I can remember pretending to be asleep on Sundays to avoid having to go to church.

School was a different story. Being in the South, state/church violations aren’t too much of a surprise. In fifth grade, the Gideons came and passed out little red New Testaments. In eighth grade, a prayer was said over the intercom at our “graduation” ceremony. Finally, in my senior year, the school was giving the senior class the chance to vote on whether to have a prayer at graduation.

I learned of the vote during my junior year. The teacher who mentioned it claimed that because it was being voted on by the students, it wasn’t a problem. That didn’t sound legal to me.

I went home and did some research, and lo and behold, it wasn’t. On Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog, I found out about a case extremely similar to mine in Indiana. Some of you may remember Eric Workman, who received an FFRF award at last year’s convention. I followed his case, and once the ruling was made in his favor, I got a bit of a boost of confidence, thinking that maybe I’d file a complaint against my own school.

It got pushed to the back of my mind until the second semester of my senior year. Knowing that the time for the vote had to be coming up soon, I started doing research again. I found a few more related cases, one of which was the case of Jessica Ahlquist, who as a sophomore was speaking out against a prayer banner displayed in her Rhode Island high school. She had created a Facebook group for supporting her cause, so I joined it and watched it progress.

In early April, I found out from a member of student government that the vote was scheduled to take place at a senior class meeting April 19. I started looking up who I could file a complaint with. I knew of ACLU’s involvement with Eric’s case. Coincidentally, as I was looking for organizations, Jessica messaged me.

Back when I had joined her group, I mentioned the violation at my school in a chat. She remembered that and messaged me to ask about it. After we talked for a while, she told me how to file a complaint with FFRF.

That night, April 13, I filed a complaint with both the ACLU and the FFRF.

FFRF’s quick response

I didn’t expect to hear anything for at least a few weeks, but much to my surprise, FFRF responded the very next day and sent a letter to the school’s principal and superintendent. The letter basically told the school, “Hey, what you’re planning to do is illegal. Quit that.”

With that, I got a bit excited. The five days until the meeting passed at a snail’s pace. Finally, the day arrived. Seniors were dismissed from class and congregated in the auditorium. The meeting went on, and then, there was no vote!

Things seemed great! But then I looked through the papers that had been handed out. On a page entitled “Tips for Graduation” was the sentence, “The ceremony is not over until after the prayer and recessional.”

As soon as I got out of school that day, I called Rebecca Markert, the FFRF staff attorney who had sent the letter and was handling my case. I told her that there was no vote, but also told her about the sentence on the “tips” page. She sent the school a letter about the handout.

After a few more days, FFRF received a response. The letter was a bit of a laugh. The school had written back stating that after talking to their lawyers, they had decided to end the tradition of holding a vote for prayer at graduation in order to avoid creating a basis for a legal challenge. But, they went on to say, according to a state law called the South Carolina Student-Led Messages Act, they were unable to prevent speakers from saying whatever they wanted during the opening and closing remarks.

After that, they mentioned that their understanding is that “no court with jurisdiction over South Carolina has held that a student-initiated prayer at a . . . graduation ceremony is unconstitutional.”

I guess they forgot about the Supreme Court.

I figured that after that response, it would be all over. I was wrong.

It took a couple of days, but people finally realized “Hey, what about the prayer vote?” Student government was the first to know of its cancellation since the student body president was supposed to lead the prayer, and the news trickled down from there.

Being the only outspoken atheist at the school, it was quickly connected to me. When asked about it, I was honest “Yeah, I filed the complaint.”

A few arguments arose at my lunch table after this, but nothing too serious. Things seemed to quiet down for a bit, until — someone called the local news channel.

Complaint fallout

It wasn’t until a friend spotted a news van in front of the school that I knew about this. She stopped, thinking it was possibly related to the prayer. Guess what? It was. She asked if they’d be interested in interviewing the person who filed the complaint. Of course they were, so I was called, and the next thing I knew I had to abandon my dinner in order to get to the school in time to be interviewed.

That night, the interview with me and a student who was in favor of the prayer aired. Things blew up again, this time even bigger than before.

That night I was flooded with friend requests on Facebook, and started to see people’s reactions to it. I started taking screenshots of the reactions, the vast majority of which were negative. Some examples:

“I think it’s ridiculous that a prayer can’t be said at our graduation because someone doesn’t feel ‘included.’ ” “For those who got prayer taken out of MY graduation, I’ll pray for YOU!” My personal favorite: “Now I’m no fan of senseless violence, but . . . this kid needs to be taken out back and have his ass kicked to beat some sense into him.”

Christian love, right there.

I decided to take it all in stride. A person posted on my wall, asking “Why I wasted my money on that” and calling me devil boy. Someone else called me the “antichrist.” Later, I decided to sign yearbooks with those nicknames.

Over the next few weeks, tensions were high in school. A petition started circulating within the school and community to get prayer added back to the ceremony. A “prayer chain” was planned to surround the school during the graduation. Anytime I walked through the halls, all eyes were on me. “God loves you!” was shouted at me from behind my back.

Arguments flared up again during lunch, this time getting to the point where they were just shouting matches, resulting in me being called “close-minded” and one girl refusing to sit with us for a week. Rumors of people planning to beat me up circulated throughout the school. Luckily, nothing ever came from those.

Not all of the reactions were bad, however. People would come up to me at times and tell me “Hey, I’m an atheist, thanks for standing up for us.” Sometimes, even Christians would come up and say that they agreed with what I did. Messages on Facebook starting coming in from people who had graduated in the years before, saying that the prayer had made them uncomfortable and applauding me for being the person who finally took a stand against it.

Over the next few weeks, I started speaking out more about it. I was interviewed for the local newspaper, which ended up writing what I consider the most unbiased coverage of the issue locally. I was interviewed for two radio shows — one in Rhode Island and the other being FFRF’s very own Freethought Radio. I was also interviewed for two books about student activists.

I started working with other student activists as well. Jessica Ahlquist and I reached out to Damon Fowler after first hearing about his case on the website Later, the three of us ended up doing a sort of interview on the site, which ended up with more than 3,000 comments.

Graduation day

Soon enough it was June 2, the day of graduation.

The prayer chain I mentioned earlier ended up being moved to a parking lot down the road. We just happened to drive by it on the way to the school, and there were only about 20 people there.

The ceremony started, and the student body president began to speak.

“I’d like to thank our administration, our teachers, our parents, but there’s one more person I’d like to thank, and that person is God. Will you join me in prayer?”

Cheers erupted from the crowd both before and after the prayer, and people turned to look at me. I wasn’t surprised; he had stated in an interview that he was still going to pray when he spoke. People had also been bragging on Facebook that all four student speakers were going to pray.

But that was the only prayer at the ceremony. The only other mention was made by the valedictorian, who at first said that we should not have been so divided over the prayer controversy, and that we were all still classmates. A nice sentiment, but he then went on to state that he disagreed completely with those against the prayer, and that it served only to strengthen his faith.

Of course, he was met with cheers as well.

After the ceremony, a friend came up to tell me he’d overheard people again planning to beat me up. Luckily, it didn’t happen, although on my way to my ride home, someone yelled “Jesus loves you!”

And with that, my story at Laurens District 55 High School ends. But my story in the secular movement had only just begun.

In late June, I spoke at the Center for Inquiry’s Student Leadership Conference on a panel with other student activists: Jessica Ahlquist, Damon Fowler and Zack Kopplin. [Zack, a Baton Rouge senior, successfully challenged teaching creationism in Louisiana.] In July I attended the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference. Over the summer I was starting to look into what I needed to do to start an SSA affiliate at the college I was going to attend, Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., only 10 minutes away from my former high school.

That has just paid off. As of last Sunday [10-2-11], the Secular Student Alliance at Presbyterian College is an officially recognized group. Already I’ve received messages and emails from upperclassmen and even from alumni who have said that they had wished the group was around when they were freshmen.

With my group, I hope to continue to remain active in the secular movement and help get others more active. I hope to see nonreligious students more accepted, not just on my own campus but at least in the surrounding community.

I hope to help people see that they aren’t alone, and that even in the bible belt there are nonbelievers just like them, and that they don’t have to remain silent about it.

Harrison Hopkins, 18, graduated from Laurens District 55 High School, in Laurens, S.C. He contacted FFRF to complain about a scheduled senior class vote in April over whether to pray at graduation. That vote was officially stopped, although students organized protest prayers. He is attending Presbyterian College. His interests include computers and the internet, marksmanship, and as of recently, activism. He is an atheist.

Photos: Jeff Yardis

Freedom From Religion Foundation