’Twas the season for more graduation prayer

FFRF attorneys sent out letters of complaint this spring to 16 schools about illegal prayer at public school graduations. Most were directed at high school ceremonies, but four went to colleges and one addressed prayer at a kindergarten graduation. Letters went to Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Illinois, Ohio, New York and North Carolina.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert was persistent in pursuing the situation in Laurens, S.C. Her first letter to Laurens School District 55 Superintendent Billy Strickland was April 14. In it, she objected on behalf of a graduate to the senior class voting on whether to have prayer at graduation. Strickland responded April 18 that in light of the letter, seniors would not be voting.

In an April 21 letter, Markert objected to a packet distributed to all seniors. Its “Tips for Graduation” ended with the line, “Graduation is not over until the prayer and recessional. . .” Strickland acknowledged on May 2 it was wrong to include the prayer reference, and said it would not part be part of the tips listed on the school website and that local media would be so informed.

Markert wrote again on May 27 after receiving information that four student speakers planned to pray. “These students’ prayers are not simply spontaneous statements on religiosity.”

Markert added, “[W]e ask the district take steps to ensure that student speeches do not become a forum for prayer being led as group devotion. If a student starts a prayer or asks the audience to join him/her in prayer, the district should stop the student and ask him/her to focus on the graduation of students and their hard work over the last four years. (Individual statements of personal belief represent the individual and are very different than a student leading and urging students to defy Supreme Court precedent by organizing graduation prayers.)”

Another student activist, Damon Fowler, headed off prayer at his graduation in Bastrop, La., and stirred up a hornets’ nest in the offing. See page 7 for what Damon accomplished and went through. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt was FFRF’s point person and wrote several letters to school officials highlighting errors in judgment in the case.

Some of FFRF’s other graduation complaints:

Yellville, Ark.: The Yellville-Summit High School graduation included a student-delivered prayer. Past ceremonies also had scheduled prayers.

Mackinaw, Ill.: Students delivered an invocation and benediction “in Jesus’ name” at the Deer Creek-Mackinaw High School graduation. Our complainant informed us that prayers have been a regular and likely scheduled feature of past Deer Creek-Mackinaw graduations, despite their exclusion from the official program.

Little Rock, Ark.: When the Mills University Studies High School celebrated its graduating seniors, the audience heard an unannounced invocation by the assistant principal. A parent of a graduating senior, an FFRF member, reported the violation. The parent wrote:

“[My children] have experienced ostracism by other students based on their unwillingness to conform to the majority religious views among their peers, so we anticipated that there would be some form of prayer at commencement and made a video recording of the event. We were correct — Assistant Principal Clayton opened the event with an invocation to God and Jesus. I am typically not outspoken in these matters and have spent my life tolerating such displays, but my kids found it to be offensive and inappropriate.”

Mogadore, Ohio: Field Local Schools scheduled a graduation invocation. The class treasurer delivered a prayer referencing Jesus Christ and the Book of Psalms.

Mesquite, Texas: A parent from the Mesquite Independent School District alerted FFRF to a scheduled student-led prayer, which took place at his daughter’s graduation.

Klein, Texas: At least four high schools in the Klein Independent School District had scheduled student invocations approved in advance by administrators.

Humble, Texas: Humble High School graduation included a student-led invocation and benediction. The benediction ended with “in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”

Deer Park, Texas: Students and audience members were asked to remain standing after the national anthem for student-led prayer at Deer Park High School graduation. 

Lewisville, Texas: A graduating senior contacted FFRF after their commencement ceremony from School High of Lewisville, which is a public charter school.  Our complainant indicated that on June 3, 2011, a student- led prayer took place as part of the scheduled program. 

(FFRF received numerous complaints from Texas. Given current Texas state law, which FFRF believes to be unconstitutional, staff attorneys are evaluating options to tackle prayer at high school graduations in Texas for the next academic year.)

College commencement prayer complaints were sent to Queens College-CUNY, Flushing, N.Y.; Nash Community College, Rocky Mount, N.C.; Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge; and Lake Superior State University, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

FFRF urges stricter school flier policy

Due to earlier action by FFRF, the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group, has filed a lawsuit against the School District in Garfield Heights, Ohio. The suit challenges Maple Leaf Intermediate School’s refusal to distribute fliers promoting after-school bible education events. ADF is pressing the case for a mothers’ group that claims its free-speech rights were violated.

It’s not the first time the group has caused trouble at Maple Leaf, said FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. FFRF first complained in 2007, and then followed up in 2008 and 2009, that the school was unconstitutionally sponsoring an annual field trip, organized by the mothers’ group, to a Nazarene church during the school day. Finally, in response to another complaint in May 2010, the school canceled the field trip and organizers changed it so that it took place after school.

FFRF’s online FAQ at ffrf.org/faq/state-church/ has information about common problems with fliers: “Some federal courts have deemed distribution of religious fliers in students’ take-home folders constitutional if the school flier system is akin to a limited public forum. This means if the school allows other outside groups, i.e., soccer clubs, etc., to distribute fliers or other promotional materials, then the school cannot discriminate against religious organizations doing the same.”

The website notes, “Many enlightened school districts across the country have sought to avoid this entanglement by prohibiting third parties from using the take-home fliers system altogether.”

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, in a May 2011 letter to district Superintendent Linda Reid, noted that the mothers’ group “sought to use the school as a recruiting ground for its religious purposes. The prior support that the district provided seems to have created a sense of entitlement. That has put the district in the unfortunate position that it is currently in.”

Gaylor urged to district to amend its flier policies so that only school-sponsored announcements are sent home with students. “This avoids the difficult First Amendment issues that arise when the school becomes involved in distributing materials for other groups.”

Gaylor added, “What would the dstrict do if the Westboro Baptist Church or other hate groups sought to distribute fliers? Such groups are allowed to share their views in a number of places, but the public schools should not be one of them; schools should not create a ‘forum’ for these organizations.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation