It’s Graduation, Not Confirmation – South Carolina School Begins Commencement With Prayer

Since when can a vote decide the extent to which a public educational institution adheres to religious liberty?

By Noah Fitzgerel

Do you recall your graduation day? Caps and gowns blanket your friends and teachers, ushering you into a new chapter of your life as you smile to your parents and family friends. As a rising high school senior, I can only anticipate the feeling of accomplishment that will overcome me as I walk across the stage with my diploma in hand.

Now imagine your feeling of euphoria crushed, as one of your peers begins the ceremony with a prayer in the sentiment of a religion with which you have no association. You feel isolated, alone and slighted, wiping any smile you might have had off of your face.

In Columbia, S.C., now-alumnus Max Nielson suffered through this very scenario while attending his graduation at Irmo High School.

Nielson, an atheist in a town that – according to Free Times reporter Corey Hutchins – “tends to wear its Judeo-Christian beliefs on its sleeve,” felt uncomfortable as the school permitted an Irmo senior to deliver an invocation at the May 30 ceremony.

However, the moment came as no surprise. The school’s administration had sponsored a senior-class ballot that permitted the student to deliver the prayer. In fact, Nielson had met with his school’s principal and superintendent about the issue before the graduation ceremony, but to no avail.

The school administrators had seen nothing wrong with the reading of a prayer from the stage of a public high school that purports to serve the whole Columbia community irrespective of religious affiliation.

Feeling that the situation needed to be rectified, the Freedom from Religion Foundation took the matter to federal court.  Aaron Kozloski, an attorney with whom Americans United has worked before, filed a civil suit on Nielson's behalf against Richland District 5.

Despite the pending legal action, the invocation at the graduation ceremony took place anyway.

School Superintendent Steve Hefner, attempting to justify his stance, issued a letter on the controversy.

“While I am a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state,” he wrote, “I do not believe that freedom of religion should be interpreted as requiring freedom from religion within the public schools.”

As a public school student, I find such a statement deeply troubling and a misreading of the concept of church-state separation.

Hefner seems to imply, as have some other public school administrators, that the American public school system is an appropriate venue for official religious expression. Moreover, by supporting the student ballot on prayer, which reported a 252-53 vote in favor of an invocation, Hefner displayed an ignorance for the very founding principle of this nation — the opinion of the minority cannot be stifled by the force of the majority.

Since when can a vote decide the extent to which a public educational institution adheres to religious liberty? It is not those who have opposed the invocation that, as Hefner opined, require “freedom from religion,” but it is instead the officials of Irmo High School who have deprecated the tenets of religious liberty.

Even if the South Carolina school contained enough Christians to condone the oration of an invocation by a vote, there is no justification for the issuance of a majority-rules prayer. The public school system has a responsibility to listen to the concerns of those such as Nielson, whose perspective and opinion might make up a minority against an overwhelming majority, but whose validity certainly counts no less.

Simply, this is another iteration of a troubling sentiment throughout all levels of American government: that government needs to provide a support for religion.

As the Rev. Neal Jones, an Americans United board member and minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, told the Free Times, some people seem to think that if we don’t have "public prayer and religious documents on public buildings or religious license plates and so forth, that somehow their religion would crumble."

Said Jones, “I think how fragile their religion must be to think that they have to have government to prop up their religion.”

Indeed, history shows that as the government becomes more involved in matters of religion, the institutions of religion lose their free agency. That’s one reason that Thomas Jefferson opposed governmental support of Christian ministers in Virginia over two centuries ago, and it’s one reason that Americans United continues to fight today for the maintenance of religion and government in their own separate and respective roles.

Most importantly, the words of the invocation have upset one of the most important days in the life of a high school senior, simply because his own beliefs were different from those with whom he attended school.

I could not think of anything more upsetting.

Fortunately, two students at Irmo High have joined the ongoing lawsuit in South Carolina, so the school’s policy of imposing worship at graduation will be tested in federal court before the 2013 commencement occurs.

Noah Fitzgerel is a summer intern at Americans United. He is a rising senior at Annandale High School, Annandale, Va.