It’s graduation season: a time for speeches, processions—and lawsuits over whether it’s legal to pray at public-school ceremonies. Every spring there are new fights about this old issue. Can a clergyperson say a prayer at graduation? What about a student? Can a teacher or principal include religious messages in their speeches? Can the name “Jesus” be said out loud?
Some of this year’s fights include being paid to pray at a ceremony and canceling a ceremony altogether to avoid prayer. In a so-called pay-to-pray controversy, former Navy chaplain Rev. Gordon James Klingenschmitt promised a $1,000 reward to the first student who says the Lord’s Prayer or the words “in Jesus’ name” at a Florida graduation ceremony. Last year the Florida legislature passed a law allowing students to give prayers or speeches with religious content as long as the students hadn’t been influenced by a school official. When the school board in Florida’s St. Johns County was considering whether to adopt such a policy, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, an atheist group, threatened to sue if they did so. The school board reconsidered, which spurred Klingenschmitt to offer his $1,000 reward. “We are going to recognize students that have more courage than their school board,” he said.
Meanwhile, a school board in Arkansas voted to cancel a sixth-grade graduation ceremony rather than allow prayer after the school board also received a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Kelly Adams, a parent with a son in sixth grade, was upset by the cancellation and told a local TV station, “We serve a God. And we should have the right to serve that God anywhere.” Adams and other mothers are organizing a graduation ceremony in a local church. It’s unofficial, and prayers will be permitted.
In these cases the divide seems clear. On one side are religious people who support prayer in public schools, and on the other side are atheists who oppose it. But in reality, such distinctions often don’t hold; some of the strongest opponents of officially sponsored prayer in schools are people of faith. They want religion to flourish and know it is less likely to do so if the government gets mixed up in the business of deciding what kind of religion and religious expression is allowed and what kind is not.
A prayer at graduation may seem relatively harmless or even beneficial to some. After all, what is so bad about thanking God and asking for God’s blessing at a ceremony celebrating young people? But think about it: Graduation in a public school is an organized event—a regulated aspect of local government. Public schools serve all who come, and student bodies are increasingly diverse in their backgrounds and beliefs.
People of many faiths—as well as those of no faith—are likely to be present at a public-school graduation ceremony. School officials should not be in the business of picking one brand of religion to represent the school and rejecting others. That is exactly what the First Amendment was seeking to avoid in spelling out the separation of church and state. Our founders knew from their experience in Europe that when the government links itself to one particular religion, the results are usually bloody. When religion becomes identified and virtually interchangeable with the state, religion loses.
Listen to Holly Hollman, general counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, who works on First Amendment cases every day. “The religious freedom we have in America is protected in two ways,” Hollman told me in an interview. “The first protection allows the free exercise of your faith. Look at all the churches and houses of worship in our country. We have incredible religious freedom and diversity,” she continued. “The second protection prevents the government from interfering with religion or advancing any particular religion. This is called the Establishment Clause and can be harder to understand.”
Both protections are essential, insists Hollman, in allowing religion to thrive. Just as the government cannot tell you who or how to worship or what to believe, the government cannot play favorites and give one religion special treatment over another religion or over no religion at all. What might seem like a restriction on religion because of the Establishment Clause is actually an essential protection of religion. These two protections are encoded in the First Amendment to the Constitution, and over the centuries they have encouraged Americans to become more accepting of newcomers with different backgrounds and faiths so that we can live side by side.
Hollman recognizes that graduation ceremonies are communal experiences and that prayer can seem like a way to celebrate these bonds. She has a suggestion around this dilemma. In addition to the official public-school ceremony, parents can hold a baccalaureate ceremony in a local church or house of worship, invite the community, and include religious messages and prayers. That way the government is not involved, and the community can express its beliefs.
It would be good if more people of faith spoke up louder about the need to protect and defend religion—not by misusing the power of the state to impose religion on others, but by defending religion itself by making it off limits from state power and control.
I hope that our children are learning this lesson in public schools today. It’s a crucial part of America’s heritage and worth celebrating at graduation.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.