Missouri school district halts graduation prayer after FFRF insistence

A photo of a hand holding a graduation cap.

It took a bit of work but the Freedom From Religion Foundation has convinced a Missouri school district to stop scheduling prayers at a high school’s commencement.

Kennett High School graduation ceremonies in past years included an official prayer as part of the program. For instance, at the school’s 2023 graduation ceremony, a student speaker delivered this invocation:
Let us pray. Dear Heavenly Father, we gather here today to offer our heartfelt prayers for the graduating class of 2023. As we embark on a new chapter in our lives, we ask for your blessing and guidance to be with us. May we find our purpose and fulfillment in our paths and may our journeys be filled with opportunities for growth and success. Grant us the strength and courage to overcome challenges. We pray that our achievements be a source of pride and inspiration not only for ourselves but also for our families and mentors who have supported us along the way. May we never forget the lessons learned, the friendships formed, and the memories created during our time of education. As we move forward into the unknown we ask for your divine protection and blessings to be upon us, may we walk with confidence knowing that we are capable of making a positive impact in the world in your grace and mercy we humbly offer these prayers for the graduating class of 2023. May we find joy, success and fulfillment in all of our endeavors. In Jesus’ name we pray amen.

Similar prayers marked graduations in years prior. Throughout this time period, prayers were delivered to “God,” “Heavenly Father” or “Lord.”

In January, FFRF asked Kennett School District 39 to cease having sectarian prayer at its official school events.

“It is well settled that public schools may not show favoritism towards or coerce belief or participation in religion,” FFRF Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Hirsh M. Joshi wrote to Superintendent Chris Wilson. “The Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including graduations. School officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy member to give any type of prayer, invocation, benediction, or sermon at a public school-sponsored events, nor may they give a prayer themselves.”

The popularity of including the prayer is immaterial, FFRF emphasized; courts have continually reaffirmed that the rights of minorities are protected by the Constitution regardless. As the Supreme Court has said, “Fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” And by including prayer at graduation ceremonies, the district also needlessly excluded nonreligious and non-Christian students. Nationwide, 49 percent of Generation Z is considered religiously unaffiliated.

To respect the constitutional rights of students and their families, FFRF urged that the district not schedule prayer at any future school-sponsored events. A bit of a back and forth then ensued between FFRF and the school district. The district sent FFRF a letter taking the stance that the graduation prayer was valid since it had been a part of the graduation ceremony for many years.

“It does not make a difference if a constitutional violation is longstanding,”  FFRF pointed out in its follow-up letter.

“Graduations are not the place for personal religious promotion, just as it would taint the occasion if a speaker promoted their personal political beliefs while speaking to those assembled. No district would actually want to open up its ceremonies to religious debate by providing general access to the student body.” Joshi wrote. “If it violates the Constitution, you are obligated to put a stop to it.”

FFRF’s research and requests won the day.

“The district undertook a comprehensive review of its policies and procedures for its high school graduation ceremonies,” the legal counsel for the district replied. “Following this review, the district is changing the structure of its high school graduation ceremonies. Going forward, the district is removing the student-led invocation from its high school graduation ceremonies.”

FFRF has confirmed that the district’s 2024 graduation ceremony did not include prayer, and is delighted that its perseverance paid off.

“Whether it’s a city, suburb or Missouri’s Bootheel, the Establishment Clause is the law of the land,” adds Joshi. “Kennett did the right thing and kept the wall between church and state intact.”

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor is happy with the outcome.

“We’re so pleased that the commencement ceremony will salute the students and their 13 years of hard work — instead of somebody else’s deity,” she says.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 40,000 members across the country, including almost 500 members in Missouri. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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