After a multiyear effort, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has made sure that an Ohio public high school's graduation ceremony will not be infused with religion.
FFRF initially contacted Dalton Local Schools in the summer of 2015 with its objections to a benediction at the Dalton Local High School graduation that year. The district assured FFRF that this would not happen in 2016. Instead, it invited Mark Hirst, a former member of the school board and a local pastor, to give the "message" at the 2016 graduation ceremony. His address contained overly religious content, peppered with remarks such as "Our soul calls us to this great truth, that we are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God's great universe" and "I want you, class of 2016, to be everything that God created you to be..."
FFRF emphasized to the school district that it should have expected this, since Hirst had given similarly prayerful speeches at past ceremonies. The district has a duty to remain neutral toward religion, the organization said, and to guarantee that all school functions, especially graduations, are secular.
"As you were informed last year, the Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations," FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Dalton Local Schools Superintendent Scott Beatty this July. "School officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation or benediction at a public high school graduation."
After an exchange of letters over the past few months, FFRF has finally received a solid assurance from Dalton Local Schools.
"The superintendent will be requiring that any outside speaker at a district-sponsored event, such as graduation, provide a copy of the speaker's remarks to the superintendent for review to ensure that there are no comments that can be construed as proselytizing," the school district's legal counsel recently replied. "Any outside speaker will be advised of the district's adherence to its obligations under the Establishment Clause with regard to not promoting any religion or religious beliefs."
FFRF is pleased that the school district was ultimately responsive.
"We're happy that district officials finally realized that the way the graduation was conducted was unconstitutional," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We trust the religiosity will not be on display at future ceremonies."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nontheist organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 24,000 members all over the country, including 600-plus in Ohio.