Will pay to pray in Florida school

After the St. Johns County School Board voted recently against allowing high school graduation prayer in St. Augustine, Fla., a Colorado pastor is offering a $1,000 reward to the first student to flout school policy and break the law.

A state law enacted last year lets school districts adopt a policy allowing students to have an open forum/mic at any school event, including graduation, to deliver an “inspirational” message. The goal of bill supporters was to get prayer in schools under the free speech guise, and in fact, the bill’s first drafts explicitly stated that, until it was pointed out that such a provision was clearly unconstitutional.

Gordon Klingenschmitt, a former U.S. Navy chaplain who operates Pray In Jesus’ Name Ministries in Colorado Springs, says this on his website: “Our ministry is hereby offering a $1,000 scholarship to the FIRST high school student who prays either the Lord’s prayer (Our Father…) or says a sincere prayer ending ‘in Jesus’ name,’ on the school microphone at his or her graduation ceremony in St. John’s County, FL school District #2.”

No Florida school board has approved such a policy to date.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel had written a letter to the school district’s attorney March 20 to outline potential problems with an open forum policy. “First, the school will lose all control over the message. Second, the nascent history of the putative policy shows an explicit intent to have prayer in school. The board cannot escape this history and the religious purpose puts the policy firmly in Establishment Clause, not free speech, jurisprudence.”

Seidel added, “Once the board passes this policy, it will have no ability to police student speech. Students could seize the opportunity to talk about anything — sex, gay marriage, politics or religion. They could denigrate other religions and declare that only Christians will go to heaven, or that only Muslims, or Buddhists or atheists will have an eternal reward.”

The school board that first approves such a policy “is asking for a lawsuit,” Seidel said. 

“The push to have this policy is clearly religious; in fact, the push is not for an open forum but graduation prayer. The supporters’ buttons call for ‘Graduation Prayer’ with praying hands next to a mortarboard cap and diploma. It also calls for ‘Freedom From Atheism,’ ” Seidel wrote.

In a story in the St. Augustine Record headlined “Lawsuit threat sways school prayer action,” Board Chairman Tommy Allen said, “No other school district has adopted this. If we did adopt it, we’d have to stand alone. If we do adopt it, then it will take money out of the classroom to defend.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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