The Freedom From Religion Foundation is dismayed about a gratuitously religious recent graduation ceremony at an Illinois public high school.
A concerned community member contacted FFRF to report that the Brimfield High School graduation ceremony on May 20 included two separate Christian prayers. A copy of the ceremony’s written program includes both an “INVOCATION” and a “BENEDICTION.”
Students reportedly voted on whether there would be a prayer, and then administrative staff instructed the valedictorians to select who among them would deliver the prayers during the ceremony. FFRF’s complainant reports that numerous attendees stated the prayers made them feel uncomfortable. And it seems that Brimfield High School graduation ceremonies have included prayers since at least 2010.
Including religious rituals, such as prayer, in school-sponsored functions shows school endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, FFRF reminds the school district.
“The Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations,” FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne writes to Brimfield CUSD #309 Superintendent Robert Richardson. “In Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court specifically struck down a school policy that authorized students to vote on whether to hold a prayer at school-sponsored events. In finding the student vote unconstitutional, the court specifically addressed the constitutional problem this practice poses, stating, ‘A student election does nothing to protect minority views but rather places the students who hold such views at the mercy of the majority.’”
Given this clear precedent prohibiting prayer at school-sponsored events initiated by student votes, it is puzzling why the school district decided to ask students to vote on whether to have an unconstitutional prayer, FFRF says. It makes no difference how many students want prayer or would not be offended by prayer at their graduation ceremony. The U.S. Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students, including the 38 percent of younger Americans who are not religious.
“The rights of a student cannot be subjected to the whims of the majority,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “Each and every student must be respected when he or she differs from the prevailing religious sentiment — no matter how imbalanced the numbers.”
FFRF requests written assurances that the school district will not schedule or approve prayers as a part of future graduation ceremonies, including allowing students to vote on whether or not to have a prayer.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,000 members and a Chicago-area chapter in Illinois. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.
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