Some Missouri public high school students are asking for an apology after their superintendent sermonized during their graduation ceremony on Saturday. 

Willard High School seniors stated that Superintendent Kent Medlin’s comments, which included prayers, were inappropriate and exclusive to Christians. (They’re also unconstitutional since the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it a violation of the First Amendment for public school officials to pray at school-sponsored events like graduation.)

“I came there to graduate, not go to church. It kind of ruined the rest of my night,” Preston Schaeffer, a senior at the school, told the Springfield News-Leader. “That was the last night of my high school experience and he chose to talk about religion instead of graduation.”

Students say that it’s an annual occurrence for Medlin to ask students and parents to join him in a prayer at the end of the graduation, but this year, various seniors wrote letters asking Medlin to not do so. He did it anyway.  

“He asked students to stand up and pray as a Christian, quoting the Bible numerous times throughout. Many students felt extremely ostracized by the situation when choosing not to pray," Ashlynn Bradley, another senior who refused to participate in the prayer, said. “Dr. Medlin, the superintendent, even invited students to his office for coffee to discuss ‘the Lord.’ This was incredibly inappropriate.”

Indeed it was. Students shouldn’t have to choose between skipping their own graduation ceremony because they don’t want to take part in school-sponsored prayers. For many students, graduation is a time to celebrate. All should be made to feel welcome. Religious proselytizing by school officials ruins that atmosphere.  

This is not an appropriate venue for a sermon

While Medlin later said that he in “no way wanted to offend anybody,” his actions were wrong regardless of his intent, as students noted.

“He said you can attribute all your successes to Jesus Christ and we were like, ‘Wow, you cannot say that,’” Bradley said. “It was more embarrassing than anything. I didn’t want to compromise my beliefs and stand just to be one with the class… It was ostracizing. I and some fellow students felt pressure. There were stares from the audience.”

Students like Joseph Amundson chose not to stand during the prayers in solidarity with religious and non-religious minorities.

“I was upset by it. I thought it was offensive to anyone who was attending who was not of the Christian faith,” Amundson said. “I didn’t stand because it made me so mad that he did that.”

Even though these students have graduated, it’s clear that they don’t intend to let this issue go. They want to ensure that future graduation ceremonies at Willard High are open and welcoming to all.

“We hope we’ll set a precedent in Willard so other students don’t have to go through what we went through,” Bradley said.

Youth activism like this gives me hope for the future. These students know that Medlin’s sermon was completely inappropriate, and they don’t intend to let him get away with it. If they keep the pressure up and reach out to peers in lower grades (and their parents), they can ensure that next year’s graduation at Willard High welcomes everyone and comports with the commands of the Constitution. 

To learn more about how to get involved with church-state separation advocacy, check out Americans United's student page.