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Still fighting over a lost cause

Published on -5/19/2013, 3:11 PM

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School officials in Lake City, Ark., have come up with a novel solution to the fight over prayer at graduation:

No prayer, no graduation.

On May 6, the school board voted to cancel sixth-grade graduation at Lake City's two elementary schools. The action came soon after the district received a complaint letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation objecting to prayers at previous graduations.

Rather than drop the prayers, the district opted to drop the entire ceremony.

The decision appears to be popular in the community. For many Christians in the predominately Christian community, no graduation is better than graduation without prayers.

A group of Christian parents have come up with plan B: Privatize graduation by organizing a graduation ceremony at a local church where participants can pray as much as they like.

No word yet on what parents and students of minority faiths or those with no religious affiliation will do on graduation day.

Meanwhile in Georgia, Houston County school officials also got a letter from FFRF demanding an end to prayers and religious music at the high school graduation.

The district is forging ahead with plans for a high school graduation ceremony -- but minus the devotional content.

Needless to say, many conservative Christians in Houston County are angered by the change. Stripping the prayers and hymns from the ceremony is an "attack on Christianity," one local pastor told Fox News.

What's remarkable about these prayer conflicts (and we have them every May) is that some local school districts are still fighting about prayers at graduation 21 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the practice unconstitutional (Lee v. Weisman, 1992).

Every year, advocacy groups uncover school districts, typically in rural, religiously homogenous communities, that continue to practice a form of civil disobedience by including prayers and devotional music in their graduation ceremonies. And every year, school districts breaking the law are made to uphold it.

Defending school-sponsored prayers at graduation is a lost cause, as Lake City and Houston County school officials can testify.

But prayer doesn't have to be banished from the graduation experience altogether.

First and foremost, communities are free to hold Baccalaureate services during graduation weekend with as many prayers as they choose. As long as such services are privately sponsored, the school can announce the event and even allow it to be held in the school (on the same basis as other community groups use school facilities in non-school hours). Students and teachers are free to attend or not.

It's also possible that a student speaker at graduation will offer a prayer. But under current law, such prayers are only legal if the student speaker was chosen by neutral criteria and given primary control of his or her speech (i.e., not reviewed or edited by the school).

If school officials do decide to let students speak freely, they would be wise to put a disclaimer in the program explaining that the speech represents the views of the student, not the school.

But the best way to accommodate prayer at graduation is to let people choose for themselves what, if any, prayers they want to pray by putting a "moment of silence" on the program.

After all, the decision to pray or not to pray is a matter of conscience -- and not the business of any school or state.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Washington-based Newseum. chaynes@freedomforum.org

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