A Pennsylvania public high school is ending its long tradition of offering a prayer or benediction during its graduation ceremony.
Last year, there was a complaint after a student invoked Jesus Christ while offering the prayer.
A controversy has ensued about the decision that Pottsgrove High School will not have an invocation or benediction at its graduation ceremony on June 15 – the first time in many years.
“To be honest, I’ve always thought that Pottsgrove was unique in still having prayer at public graduation ceremonies and that not many other schools in Montgomery County still do it,” said Superintendent Shellie Feola, reports The Mercury News. She added that she has always been concerned Pottsgrove was acting against case law pertaining to prayer and public schools, but decided to continue the tradition as long as no one complained.
“Last year’s was much more specifically religious than anything I had heard at Pottsgrove before,” Feola said about the student who invoked Jesus Christ. “I myself was kind of taken aback by the prayer. Apparently, it struck a chord with someone who was at the ceremony and it was reported to me that there was a complaint.”
The school district’s longstanding attorney Marc Davis reportedly told Feola that a 2000 court ruling in California made the tradition of a prayer at graduation illegal. Since the graduation ceremony is presented by the school district, Feola said the event is therefore officially sponsored by the government, which is prohibited from supporting a religious event.
“After we researched it, I informed the board in August that we could no longer allow the invocation and benediction,” she said. “There was some internal discussion on the board and that was the end of it, I thought. The board certainly had the ability to discuss it in public or to direct the administration to write a policy it could adopt, but that did not happen.”
Board members reportedly began a public discussion of the cancellation of the graduation prayer last Thursday when former school board president, and minister at Kingdom Life Church in Pottstown, Justin Valentine posted a link on the town’s Discussion Group Facebook page to an article about an East Liverpool, Ohio student protest against the elimination of the traditional singing of “The Lord’s Prayer” at the high school graduation due to the threat of a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The students protested the administration’s decision by standing together during graduation and reciting the prayer together.
Valentine’s post, however, was reportedly removed from the town’s Facebook page by current school board president Rick Rabinowitz. Subsequently, board members debated the issue.
“This is very disappointing to me too,” Bill Parker wrote, reports The Mercury News. “While the district, due to case law, can not direct that there be a prayer as part of the ceremony, we can also not violate freedom of speech.”
“People take their religions very seriously (proof of this is no more evident then this debate),” Rabinowitz said. “Parents and students of other religions do not come to graduation to attend a Christian religious service. They are there to celebrate the accomplishments of their students.”
“The harm is that they feel intimidated at speaking out against this practice and that they are not afforded the same opportunity,” he added. “The harm is that they are made uncomfortable or are even offended on one of the most special days of their lives. Free speech, as you know, has limits.”
“I guess we won’t know either since the ‘discussion’ was suppressed,” Valentine countered. “I have people in the same boat in favor but afraid to speak out. Staff and community members.”
“Those who I know support have more to lose seeing they have no recourse over the reigning point of view,” he continued. “Let’s use the real numbers thousands of students graduated with thousands in attendance. One complaint, real numbers no spin.”
“They may choose to do this, as was done at last year’s graduation by a student who went off script and praised Jesus during the benediction, but Pottsgrove is not a Christian school district,” Rabinowitz argued. “It is a public school district and our student body includes many religions besides Christianity.”
“Our country was founded as a Democratic Republic, but the founders were significantly concerned about the ‘tyranny of the majority,’” he continued. “That is why so many ‘checks and balances’ are built into the system. In this case, (again in my personal opinion), the rights of the minority supersede the majority, because there is no harm to the majority if there is no prayer, but there is harm to the minority if there is…”