Prayer at a Public School Graduation in Texas June 4, 2011

Prayer at a Public School Graduation in Texas

After all the graduation prayer chaos of the past few weeks, you would hope everyone learned their lesson: Graduation ceremonies are not a substitute for church. School officials can’t say a prayer. Individuals students may reference god in their speeches, but they shouldn’t be giving sermons or leading everyone in the Lord’s Prayer.

It’s one thing to talk about your own beliefs. It’s another thing to make everyone else join you in praising your deity.

Christa and Danny Schultz had filed a lawsuit against the Medina Valley Independent School District in Castroville, Texas because they knew their son’s graduation ceremony would involve everyone being asked to “join in prayer or [to] bow their heads.”

Initially, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery agreed with them — the school couldn’t allow that.

… Biery instead suggested that students modify their remarks to be “statements of their own beliefs,” allow them to make the sign of the cross, wear a yarmulke or hijab, or kneel to face Mecca.

Biery said the family was likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that public prayer would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

You can read Biery’s ruling here (PDF).

The district appealed the ruling and — goddammit, Texas — the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with them.

So there will be prayers at graduation today.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and various conservative groups, which had rallied to the defense of the school, hailed Friday’s ruling by the three-judge panel.

“It should not be illegal for students to say a prayer at a graduation ceremony. Now, the federal court of appeals agrees,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who filed a brief in support of the school.

“Students should be able to attend their graduation ceremonies without being pressured to participate in worship,” [Americans United for Separation of Church and State attorney Ayesha] Khan said. “All children should feel welcome at this important event in their lives regardless of their opinions about religion.”

The school’s valedictorian, Angela Hildenbrand, had filed an intervention lawsuit that claimed she was being deprived of her right to pray for her classmates and community during her speech. Upon hearing of the court’s decision, she paused for a few seconds and then said she “took the time to thank God.”

“We’re just so, so thrilled with the court’s ruling,” said Hildenbrand, who was helped by the conservative Liberty Institute, which supported the school district’s appeal. “We could just not be more pleased with how it turned out.”

Of course, all this bullshit would end immediately if a valedictorian just asked the audience to worship Satan along with her… or a Muslim student asked everyone to kneel and pray in the direction of Mecca… but when it’s a Christian student who wants everyone to worship Jesus along with her, it’s perfectly fine.

That’s how the law works in America.

Some people just don’t get the difference between a personal mention of a god and coercing others to pray along with you.

Like the hosts of Fox & Friends:

Media Matters explains some of the problems with the segment:

… the school is in no way prohibiting students from silent prayer. The judge reportedly “ruled that students who are speaking at graduation can still talk about their faith, or cite a belief in God as the reason for their success.” What is prohibited is turning the graduation ceremony into a religious ceremony, like allowing speakers to lead prayers, say “amen” or “God bless you” or “have the audience rise and bow their heads.” In short, the ruling simply reiterates this country’s longstanding, Constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

Sandhya Bathija at AU also points out why “majority rule” doesn’t work in this particular case and why “just one student’s complaint” should be taken into account:

Sadly, it seems those running Fox News Channel just can’t help themselves. Any time there is a church-state controversy in the news, they like to frame it as a war on Christians in America and reiterate that the majority should rule.

That’s simply not what this is about. It’s about making sure that every student feels welcomed and accepted by his or her school. In order to achieve that, the courts, including the Supreme Court, have declared that public schools can’t choose religion over non-religion or favor any particular faith.

It’s pretty simple, and it’s the only fair and constitutional way for school officials to behave.

It’s easy to say “Majority rules” when you’re in the majority. The Governor, the Attorney General, and these parents who don’t get why atheists are making a big deal about this don’t know what it’s like to be in the minority. They don’t have to constantly fight for the inclusion of their views. They just assume their beliefs must apply to everyone else and anyone who disagrees can either ignore it, cover their ears, or keep silent while the Christian ritual goes on.

They need a taste of their own medicine.

How’s this? To any student speaking at next year’s Medina Valley Independent School District graduation ceremony, if you can ask the audience to “pray to Satan” or “bow your head to Allah,” and you get it on videotape, we’ll raise a shitton of money for you?

I’m tempted to do that.

But I also think it’s all a distraction from what a high school graduation should be — a time to honor the hard work of all the students who have made it that far. It’s not a place to make political or religious speeches. The school officials, the state officials, and any valedictorian worthy of the distinction should know better.

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  • Excellent post. I, too, am furious about these recent stories, and just posted about it here, but I didn’t give as much attention to this recent Texas story as I would’ve liked to. Thanks for doing that.

  • JD

    I hate it when Christians play the victim card while playing the part of the bully.

    Free speech and freedom of religion is not about being guaranteed a government-sponsored podium in which to propagate your opinions and beliefs.

  • Rich Wilson

    You don’t get freedom by fighting for your rights. You get freedom by fighting for the other person’s rights.

  • …then said she “took the time to thank God.”

    So God is carefully looking over his naughty-nice list and sees that there are children starving and people dying of horrible diseases, when like Bush in the classroom, and aide steps in and whispers in his ear.

    Then un-Bush-like he stands up in a rage and starts throwing furniture around the place.

    “What do you mean someone is being stopped from proclaiming how brilliant I am!?”

    “To help with this starving baby crap – I’ve got to get right on this…”

    And the rest is history.

    Insecure much?

  • qwertyuiop

    They need a taste of their own medicine. How’s this? To any student speaking at next year’s Medina Valley Independent School District graduation ceremony, if you can ask the audience to “pray to Satan” or “bow your head to Allah,” and you get it on videotape, we’ll raise a shitton of money for you?

    The student body would still be the majority and can just finger the speaker as the bad guy, and the community and school district could punish him/her.

    Better idea would be to bring them to a school in a Jewish or Muslim dominated country and coerce them to make those prayers or be ostracized and threatened if they refuse. Then the school and legal system would side with the speaker.

    Of course that would never happen but it would definitely make a point.

  • Steph

    There was an “invocation” at my Texas private high school’s graduation this Thursday. I pretty much had to stand up anyways, since I was in the band, but I crossed my arms and rolled my eyes enough to show everyone how much I disapproved.

    Best part, though, was that the whole stupid thing rhymed. Texas public education at work: graduates can’t tell the difference between God and Doctor Seuss.

  • CdAHumanist

    I agree that the idea of praying to satan or allah or whatever non-Christian god or deity would distract from graduation, but maybe that’s what it would take to raise this whole thing to the next level. I would gladly donate money to the cause.

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    I do wish people would avoid using words like “offended” or “excluded”, etc, in reference to the minority. It makes dissenters sound kind of petty & whiny.
    I don’t object to this because of some personal disgruntlement, but because every adult person in this country has the right to follow their personal conscience as regards to religion (short of behaviors that harm others). And to make that choice on behalf of their children.
    These xtians who not only want to pray out of the closet and force me to collude with it, but they are telling me that THEIR religious beliefs trump MINE; and they have a right to decide what religious beliefs my child should follow.

  • mike

    Set up the fund now, I’d donate $50. Offer a $1000 – $x000 scholarship to any student (up to however many students the fund can support) who posts a YouTube video of him/herself giving such an invocation.
    Someone do this! Do a campaign like the Blasphemy Challenge! They’ll freak nation-wide.

  • J

    I don’t particularly agree that “pray to Satan” is a good idea. While it’s just another imaginary character to us, it would only cause harm to atheists by furthering the stereotype of some that we’re some kind of anti-Jesus Satan worshiping group.

    Allah seems a bit more reasonable, as it would make headlines in the Muslim sect as they would wonder why a prayed to him at graduation would is so unacceptable.

  • krinu

    Damn right. Do this, Friendly. Set up that fund and do it. I’ve got a stack of cash just burning to get put into the kitty.

  • ludovico

    “I’m tempted to do that.” –Tempted by Satan, no doubt! LOL! All seriousness aside, as a follower of Jesus who attends a church every Sunday, I totally agree that a graduation ceremony is no place to lord [pun intended–?!] it over everyone that the speaker is a pious, wearing-religion-on-my-coatsleeve, holier-than-thou type. (That would be a**holier-than-thou!) How Pharisaical! UGH! I just wish that these brand of Xtians would listen to the guy they purport to be following–cf. Matt. 6:5, et seq.

  • Kat B

    I would wholeheartedly donate to that cause, right now. I do agree that a graduation ceremony should be about graduation, not religious beliefs, but it will never get that way unless something like what you suggested actually happens to make people reconsider the practice.

  • Notice that Fox News’ icon for a story about prayer in public school is… a cross. Apparently, ‘prayer’ means ‘Christianity’ in cases like this. Not that I disagree – it usually is just about Christianity; it’s just rather blatant.

  • Mr Z

    I will personally donate up to $50 for any student who has the graduation attendees bow their head in solemn reverence for a prayer and then prays to satan. Up to a value of 500 dollars total. So that is ten people that can do it and get my money. Come on students, if you can’t beat them join them… pray… mwuhahahahahahahhaha Pray for 20 minutes, make them so uncomfortable that the ‘Christians’ ban prayer in school. Go on, prey!!!

  • Eamonn

    I think I should start a new religion which requires me to worship the lord by blowing heartily on my vuvuzela. This should be the only form of worship permitted by my religion. Then, anytime anyone askd me to join them in an act of worship my only response could be to give out a long loud blast. Collective vuvuzela worship would be even more pleasing to my deity(a football fan by the way).
    Betya nobody would ask me to worship with them twice 🙂

  • Freak

    Perhaps a Hindu or Jainist prayer would be better. (Satanist and Muslim have too much extra baggage.)

  • treedweller

    good grief, my exit from Texas looks nearer every day (after several generations living here). There was a time when right-wing religious nuts did not have quite so much control here (though I have been to several TX graduations and they always seem to have some kind of prayer).

    I must be living in the past, because I actually sent an email to AG Greg Abbott telling him not to waste money on a lost (and misguided) cause. Silly me, I thought he would lose.

    Though, frankly, I am torn by this last frontier: the valedictory speech. Up to a point, I have no problem with a student who earned the right to speak saying “I am grateful to god for helping me get here.” Free speech and all that (and assuming a non-xian student would be able to say something similar about some other religious or non-religious figure). Obviously, this is fraught with peril. “I am thankful god helped me” could easily become “. . . helped us” and even could quickly become a full-on sermon in the wrong hands. I really am not sure what the solution is. But, 1.) there isn’t much other benefit to being first in your class, so give it to them, and 2.) nobody in that graduating class is giving the speech much notice, in my experience. They have learned who their “godly” classmates are by then and have learned to roll their eyes when another sermon comes, just like the rest of us.

  • ckitching

    any student who has the graduation attendees bow their head in solemn reverence for a prayer and then prays to satan.

    I would actually like to see this. There’s a lot in the bible you could use that a simple rephrasing could turn from bad to good. For example, the ‘deception in the Garden of Eden’ could be turned into thanking the deity for granting us the knowledge to know right from wrong. I don’t think it’d be that hard to write an entire prayer, entirely supported by scripture, that sounds legit until you reach the end when the truth is revealed.

  • Tom

    *Watches the Fox video*


  • Annie

    This is so sad. We have had several instances in the last week where our constitution could have been supported and people could have learned that it doesn’t matter who you are in this country, or how many there are of you, rules are rules. Instead, they just threw the rulebook/constitution out the window.

    What about a valedictorian speech about how a student’s atheism helped make him/her the exceptional student s/he is? I would put in money for that one too.

  • Most excellent post. You hit the nail on the head several times.

    Hoping to see someone bold enough to offer up a prayer to Satan. Maybe that will send a different version of the same message.

  • It would be fantastic if someone got up to lead a prayer, then began with “Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim…”

  • treedweller

    I’ve been thinking about my earlier comment and have decided it reflects a deep denial on my part of what TX is and was. If I had tried to prevent prayer at my graduation some 25 years ago, I probably would have received a similar reaction from the community as some of the kids we’re hearing about today (though I would not have been tossed out by my family over it).

    It is true that there are some good people here and even some non-republicans (not that those are mutually exclusive), but the pervasive churchiness of small town life has not changed much. Feel free to skip church or decline to bow your head during the prayers–we’ll judge you, but mostly amongst ourselves–but don’t you dare suggest the xians should not be allowed to run everything the way they want it.

  • Your idea is a good one, so I say do it! That is exactly the sort of punk rock/teen-age insouciance that high school kids usually naturally excel at anyways. I’m a little surprised that it hasn’t happened already.

    Also, on a side note, why aren’t there more atheist kids winding up top of the class? C’mon! Hit the books!

  • Joeh

    I’d only advocate someone doing this in a school that has a history of Christian prayers at graduation. The hypocrisy will be much better.

  • Aimee

    My best friend from high school was valedictorian. She was/is Hindu. Somehow she managed to give her speech without requiring everyone to pray to her deities. And at least if she had, it would have been an education in a non western religion. I mean Christian prayers and sermons are dead boring and everyone has heard it a million times before (even life long Hindus).

    We actually had 5 valedictorians because I went to a large school and everyone who could qualify for it received it (no voting). One of the other students did mention Jesus but there was no prayer led by anyone. Just a moment of silence which works AMAZINGLY well. What a crazy thought. Still, in places that do prayers in graduation, there should definitely be protest prayers whenever possible. That idea is awesome.

    [I graduated 05 in Colorado]

  • Chas, PE SE

    RE “prayer to satan: doubt it would have any effect, they already think anyone not fundamentalist xian is a Tool of satan…

    What I’d like to see is, immediatly after an official prayer offered and made, a whistle blows, a lawyer from the ACLU steps up and announces “This school has just committed an illegal act. All diplomas are void. No one matriculates. These procedings are terminated!” and all power is cut to the venue.
    …Not gonna happen

  • Melissa

    Who is “coercing” this kid into praying to the Christian deity? Last I checked, he still has the right to put his fingers in his ears and chant whatever incantation he wants, religious or not.

    Better yet, he has the right to get his diploma in the mail.

    No one is making him pray. “Coercion” and “invitation to pray” are two different things entirely.

    Let him stick his fingers in his ears and hum something from Metallica while other people pray to whatever it is they believe in. Works for me.

    -a Texas Atheist

  • NotYou007

    Why is it that when the atheist or agnostic students speak they are very articulate but when the religious student speaks about the issue they just babble along like a fly trying to get out a closed window.

  • lurker111

    “Some people just don’t get the difference between a personal mention of a god and coercing others to pray along with you.”

    Most theists, in my experience, have little to no ability to distinguish nuances. Even big nuances (yes, oxymoron).

  • Anonymous

    Nobody noted the irony that the school is called Medina? lol

    Anyway, here’s more

    Attorney general exploits graduation prayer fight

  • JD

    Melissa, I think you have a point, but I think the point is that Government shouldn’t be giving people with religious agendas a guaranteed platform, podium, etc.

    I don’t think it’s right of some people to suggest that the diploma isn’t valid, then that’s continuing the track of using students as pawns in the theocratic war games. The ceremony is really a formality, even people that don’t go don’t go still get one. Heck, my graduation had plain paper rolls as diplomas, for fear of rain ruining the real ones in the outdoor ceremony, the real ones were picked up or mailed later. The problem here is really the continued use of a public school ceremony to continue pushing a sectarian theocratic agenda.

    That said, the valedictorian’s speech is the trickiest issue, and that’s going to be tough to handle properly because you don’t want to muzzle protected speech, however inappropriate it might be for the circumstance, because it is a tradition and the valedictorian is not an agent of government like a teacher, principal or superintendent.

  • Brandi

    Does anyone know how I could go about dealing with the school district in my town other than filing my own expensive lawsuit. Are their public action groups that fight for matters like this if notified? I live in northern Texas and at my daughter’s public school they are openly Christian. In her kindergarten classroom there is a big sign on the wall that states “In God we trust!” and daily they recite the US and the Texas pledge both mentioning God (vs. the new version that omit it) and in every school function we’ve ever went to (plays, kindergarten graduations, etc.) we’ve had sit and listen to (and roll our eyes at) prayers and thank you speeches to God and “praise Jesus”s. My husband and I are both atheist; my children are too young to have a metaphysical belief but our school-aged child is constantly bombarded by it at school (especially by her peers which can’t be helped, and in truth I find amusing because even at 6 she can give them theological arguments that they can’t answer and send them crying home to their parents). It’s difficult trying to raise a child to think and choose for herself when she’s at an age where she wants to fit in. Though we live in a large town it is extremely closed minded and very religious and with its small-town mentality my children have to suffer and are treated differently because of my beliefs. It’s unfortunate for them but as far as the school is considered- it’s unconstitutional. Does anyone have any advice?

  • Aquaria


    You might also contact the Americans United for Separation of Church & State, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

    It’s a place to start.

    I don’t think you’re going to get the In GENOCIDAL FUCKFACE we trust taken down-it’s an official state motto. But you might get some of the wackier proselytizing vomit cleaned up.

  • Larry Meredith

    why do so many Christians desire to directly disobey Matthew 6:5-6

    And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

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