By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
FRANKLINTON — Once again a legal threat from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has silenced prayer in North Carolina, this time at graduation, awards ceremonies and other school-sponsored events in Franklin County.
“It appears the Franklin County Board of Education has cut and run at the threat of the ACLU, when prayer is still permissible,” lamented the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, after hearing about the board’s Tuesday night vote.
“It’s sad, truly sad, that Supreme Court rulings on prayer at high school graduations have created a hodge-podge of concerns to have to navigate. Still, there is room to pray at these ceremonies,” he added. “And if parents within the school system were fully aware, I think they would urge the school board to reverse course, resist the ACLU, and find a way.”
Although ACLU attorney Chris Brook, representing one parent who filed a complaint about a student-led invocation at a recent awards ceremony, told the Franklin County Board of Education that the law is very clear in prohibiting school-sponsored prayer, the truth is that students do not lose their First Amendment right to free speech when they reach the graduation podium.
In fact, in a precedent-setting case against the ACLU, Adler v. Duval County School Board, Liberty Counsel helped establish the legal principle that public schools can adopt a policy that permits students or other speakers to present secular or religious messages, including prayer at commencement.
“The key to graduation prayer or religious viewpoints is that the school should remain neutral — neither commanding nor prohibiting voluntary prayer,” Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, told Charisma News for a recent article on the Counsel’s 10th annual “Friend or Foe” Graduation Prayer Campaign.
The nonprofit litigation, education and policy organization that works to advance religious freedom offers a free eight-page legal memorandum on graduation prayers in public schools to help boards maneuver through the legal minefield surrounding this issue.
According to Liberty Counsel’s assessment of the United States Supreme Court decision in Lee v. Weisman, school officials cannot direct that prayer be part of a public school graduation ceremony, nor can they select a religious participant for the express purpose of delivering prayer and give guidelines on how to say a nonsectarian, non-proselytizing prayer. However, prayer can still be conducted at graduations if school officials use secular criteria to invite the speaker, and once there, the speaker voluntarily prays. A valedictorian, salutatorian, or class officer can also voluntarily pray as part of the ceremony.
Further, according to Liberty Counsel, part of the school program can be given over to the students and therefore be student-led and student-initiated. The student body can elect a class chaplain or a representative for the specific purpose of prayer. Also, the school may adopt a free speech policy which allows the senior class an opportunity to devote a few minutes of the ceremony to uncensored student speech that can be secular or sacred.
“These are some of the options that schools and school boards have when it comes to making sure that graduation ceremonies leave room for freedom of speech and freedom of religion,” said Dr. Creech. “We can’t let the complexity of court rulings compel us to cower down in silence. We need to make the effort to understand exactly what the law allows and then take full advantage of those freedoms or else we will lose them.”
The Liberty Counsel legal brief points out that it was obviously not the Supreme Court’s intent to rule all graduation prayer unconstitutional.
“We recognize that, at graduation time and throughout the course of the educational process, there will be instances when religious values, religious practices, and religious persons will have some interaction with the public schools and their students,” the Court noted in Lee v. Weisman.
Dr. Creech urged the school board in Franklin County to revisit the issue and set a policy consistent with the Supreme Court ruling rather than continuing the prayer ban, which violates freedom of speech. He also suggested that school boards across the state take advantage of the Liberty Counsel’s expertise beginning with the attached memorandum to establish workable guidelines that can be easily defended in the face of an attack from the ACLU or other anti-religious organizations.