Allen P. Wilkinson Student Activist Awardee Seth Manning

Seth received $1,000, partially funded by the Allen P. Wilkinson Student Activist Award.

By Seth Manning

The constitutional ideal of church and state separation may seem vital to those who describe their personal belief as atheistic or agnostic. As a Christian who believes in the U.S. Constitution, I can’t help but to fight for it, as well. I think much of this comes from my experience as an LGBT individual in the South.

Northeast State Community College in Blountville, Tenn., was founded in 1966, and a graduation prayer has been recited for as long as records show. Given the demographic nature of northeast Tennessee, this shouldn’t be surprising. Christians make up a clear majority, but, as time goes on, an influx of a younger generation with less focus on religion has materialized. This increasing diversity of opinions finally led to a showdown in the Volunteer State over the prayer.

The debate was not new to the school before I enrolled. In fact, it had been an issue that both faculty and students had raised for nearly the last decade. Initial attempts to remove it were ignored by a president who was vocal in her religion. After the threat of legal action, prayer was removed from the program two years ago.

Many thought the debate was over and a moment of silence would hold. However, as graduation was wrapping up last year, the president of the college used the closing remarks to lead a Christian prayer. Students, including myself, did not forget that. I was named Student Government Association president that year and brought up the issue. The administration, though, was intent on stopping that and quickly made a move to block our group. But we would not be silenced.

I quickly gathered 10 other student leaders and sent a letter to the administration and our local media demanding that the separation of church and state be respected. Within a day, knowing that the law was clear, the administration folded and, for the first time in 50 years, allowed a moment of silence to fully replace prayer.

With just a few days before graduation, the issue seemed decided. Within a day though, a petition was started labeling the signees of the letter as a “hate group” and demanding prayer be reinserted. That petition would garner 500 signatures in just two days. Those 11 of us who signed the letter to the administration and media were subjected to vicious attacks on our sexuality, race and religion, labeling us as “anti-God,” which is ironic since half the signees were Christian.

When graduation day arrived, another attempt was made by the opposition to disrupt the day. The moment of silence was to be inclusive to all. However, the opposition quickly spread a plan to interrupt the moment of silence by shouting a mix of prayer, yelps, claps and general noise pollution.

During the moment of silence, a faint rumble of noise could be heard — apparently a few were praying aloud — but halfway through, with little support, the opposition gave up. The rest of the ceremony went unimpeded and, for the first time in 50 years, the separation of church and state was upheld.

The fight isn’t over, though. With near certainty, there will be a major push next year to turn back the clock, but the law is on the side of inclusion and equality. The Constitution will still be there, as will fighters like the 11 signees who beat a half century of religious intolerance.

My name is Seth Manning. I was born in upstate New York though I have lived in East Tennessee most my life. I have just graduated from Northeast State Community College and will be continuing my education as an honors scholar at East Tennessee State University, studying political science and emergency relief. I would like to serve in the U.S. Air Force. Eventually, my goal is to shape policy as either a legislator or employee in a federal department. Away from school, I enjoy the outdoors, sports, music and activism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation