Al Luneman Student Activist Awardee Sydney Kelly

Sydney Kelly

By Sydney Kelly

Each year, Elkin High School in North Carolina recognizes students ranked in the top 10 percent of the senior class. As graduation approached, these top seven students (including me) met with a teacher and guidance counselor to discuss the speaking honors at the commencement ceremony. We were told to each write down our top two preferences out of the possible speaking roles, which included: invocation, special recognitions, a poem, three speeches and benediction. Most of us wanted to deliver a speech. To determine who got the parts, higher class rank got higher priority for their choice and the rest was up to the teachers to decide.

I listed “speech” as my first choice. Knowing that several of the students in the group are not religious, or would not be comfortable with an invocation, I picked that as my second choice. As it turned out, I was assigned the invocation and another student, who is not religious, was assigned the benediction.

At first, I thought that if I was going to be forced to deliver a prayer, I would try to make it as inclusive to all faiths as possible. Our school tends to include prayer — and very obviously Protestant Christian-style prayer — in places where it shouldn’t be, including graduation, assemblies with guest speakers, or the singing of traditional hymns at choral concerts. A lot of our school’s students are Protestants, but the majority of the others are agnostic, atheist or unreligious. The prayers always make people uncomfortable, myself included, and I’m a practicing Catholic who had gone to a Catholic elementary school where school prayer was commonplace and expected. I’ve always wondered how our public school system was able to get away with including group prayer in so many places — meetings, assemblies and sporting events — and why no one complained. I’ve been frustrated with our school system for this reason for a long time and I’m certain others have been, as well. I was tired of our school getting away with things like this just because we are in the Bible Belt.

Invocation is wrong

I decided that giving an invocation was wrong, and no matter how religiously inclusive I could make it, it would still be wrong. I was no longer comfortable delivering something that would infringe on others’ rights, make others uncomfortable at a school function and violate a clause that is so essential to the ideals that this country was founded on. I wanted to do something about it. But I had no idea how to report something like this or who to report it to. I thought that if I talked to my teachers, they would just tell me that I couldn’t speak at graduation and simply hand the part to another student.

After my brother heard of my situation, I received a text from him wondering if I had really been asked to lead a prayer at a public school graduation. I said, “Yeah. Where is the separation of church and state?” He told me that I could forward any documentation I had to the appropriate legal defense teams, sent me a few links discussing the legality of graduation prayer and then directed me to FFRF. I immediately took out my laptop and wrote the report.

A few classmates who heard what I was doing thought this wasn’t a big deal. “Yeah, but it’s Elkin. No one cares,” one girl told me. Another said, “Oh, but you’re Catholic, I thought you’d be fine with school prayer.” To which I responded, “Yeah, but I’m not fine with violating the Constitution and infringing on others’ rights.”

FFRF Attorney Chris Line emailed me shortly after I made the report and we spoke on the phone about potential ways to go about the invocation. He offered to send a letter to the school, but he thought we could do something more, since I was the one who was to deliver the speech and reported the incident before it happened. He did suggest delivering a secular speech and addressing my motive, if I still felt comfortable speaking. I knew that by reporting this I could potentially get thrown under the bus and not be able to speak at my graduation. Because it was reported beforehand, it would be quite obvious to the faculty that I was the one who reported it. I had never heard of a secular-style speech before, but I did like that it would have a similar sentiment to a prayer and thought it would be nice if I was able to deliver a secular speech as an alternative to invocation.

I spoke with my English teacher about the invocation during a meeting with the top seven. I told her that I didn’t think an invocation should be delivered at graduation and explained why. She didn’t seem to agree and didn’t think that the reasoning mattered because it’s always been that way in this area. She was also confused: “But you chose to do the invocation.” She suggested that I could not change that or I would be forfeiting my speaking part if I refused. “I know, but I don’t think it should be done at all,” I said. She gave me a dirty look and said, “Well, you can take that up with [Principal] Hoyle.” I told her that the school would be contacted soon.

A secular speech

I began researching secular speeches. Many I read were openings for meetings rather than a graduation ceremony. But I was able to get a feel for what a secular speech should be. I wanted to write something that would express the same sentiment that would be behind a prayer without it being religious in any way. I feel like most prayers delivered at ceremonies like this work to express feelings of gratitude and sometimes ask a higher power for protection, safety or good fortune in the future, so those are the feelings I tried to convey in my secular speech. It was a little difficult to start writing something like this, but looking at how secular speeches were worded to avoid mention of a higher power or suggestion of prayer, I got some ideas. I was actually working on other homework when I thought of a line that would lead well into my speech. I opened a Google doc and began typing. After the first sentence, the rest of the speech came together fairly quickly.

I later submitted my speech to my English teacher and principal for approval. They asked me to change the title from “Graduation Address” to “Inspirational Message” and omit one line at the end of the first sentence that said a religious prayer would be “divisive and unwelcoming” because it “had a negative connotation,” but approved the rest. I believe the school had already received the letter from FFRF at this time, but I was not confronted, and they were now cooperative in dropping the invocation and benediction from the ceremony. The benediction was replaced with a “Welcome.”

Here is the speech I delivered at my high school graduation ceremony:

Inspirational Message

“Out of respect for all gathered here to celebrate our graduates this evening, I will not deliver a religious prayer at this ceremony. Recognizing our diversity in beliefs, values and faith traditions, but honoring our unity in gratitude, I invite you to reflect quietly on all that the future holds for the Class of 2019, while expressing thanks for all that have helped this year’s graduates to this point: the gift of intellect, the opportunity and initiative to learn, the goals we have set and met for ourselves and the support of our faculty, family, friends and mentors.

“Continuing to reflect with gratitude, ask that good fortune, safety and the desire to perpetual learning be always with this graduating class. As we journey forth filled with knowledge, dreams and hopes for the future, let us continue to learn from those around us, from our diversity and from our world, with compassion and gratitude.”

I’m truly thankful to FFRF for helping resolve this issue. I’m happy with the outcome and that I was able to deliver a speech that honored everyone’s faith traditions (or lack thereof) and set up our graduation ceremony to be inclusive and respectful to all. I know that what I did actually made a difference for the students in our school system and the surrounding community, even though the students and teachers I spoke with didn’t think it was a big deal. Some thought it was brave of me, others thought it was excessive to call out school prayer in my speech, but I thought it was important and needed to be done.

Sydney Kelly is a recent graduate of Elkin (N.C.) High School and now attends the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she plans to major in German and business. “I’m passionate about several social issues, especially those concerning equal rights and upholding the rights of others,” she writes. “Last year, my friend and I started a much-needed Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at my school that my younger sister has now taken charge of. Some of my hobbies include weightlifting, hiking, volunteering and pursuing my passion for language learning.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation thanks FFRF Member Al Luneman for making possible this scholarship.

Freedom From Religion Foundation