Public school graduation ceremonies are supposed to be celebrations for everyone involved, which is why it’s so frustrating when Christians try to use the venues as an opportunity to proselytize to a captive audience.
This year, like they’ve done many times before, Liberty Counsel is encouraging Christian students who get a chance to speak onstage to pray to Jesus and they’re making sure students know all the legal loopholes (PDF) to make it happen:
“The key to expressing any religious viewpoint in public school, including graduation prayer, is that the school should remain neutral — neither commanding nor prohibiting it,” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel.
“Students do not lose their constitutional right to free speech when they step to the podium at graduation,” Staver said. “To allow a variety of viewpoints except religious viewpoints at graduation is religious hostility and unconstitutional. While schools should not force people to pray, neither should they prohibit them from praying.”
This is part of their “Friend or Foe” campaign, a title they also use when pointing out retail stores that use the word “Christmas” (or don’t) in their holiday advertising.
The purpose of Liberty Counsel’s annual “Friend or Foe” Graduation Prayer Campaign is to protect religious viewpoints at graduation. Liberty Counsel will be the friend of schools that recognize the free speech rights of students and the foe of those that violate their constitutional rights. The key to graduation prayer is that the school should remain neutral — neither commanding nor prohibiting voluntary prayer or religious viewpoints.
It’s not that Staver’s wrong; it’s that he’s being a dick. He’s trying to turn a graduation ceremony into a church function, with no regard or respect for how non-Christian students would feel. He just doesn’t care about them.
Keep in mind a lot of these loopholes are directed less at the students and more at the administrators. If they just keep their hands off the ceremony (*wink wink*) and look the other way regarding students’ speeches (*nudge nudge*), they can’t be blamed if a student prays at the podium.
Prayer can still be conducted at public school graduations if school officials use secular criteria to invite the speaker, and once there, the speaker voluntarily prays. A valedictorian, salutatorian, or class officer can also voluntarily pray as part of the ceremony. The student body can elect a class chaplain or elect a class representative for the specific purpose of prayer. Part of the school program can be given over to the students and therefore be student-led and student-initiated. A parent and/or student committee can create and conduct part of the ceremony and, therefore, avoid state involvement. The ceremony can be conducted off the school premises by private individuals, and therefore no state involvement would occur. The school may also adopt a free speech policy which allows the senior class an opportunity to devote a few minutes of the ceremony to uncensored student speech that can be secular or sacred. Finally, private individuals can sponsor public school graduations on or off the public campus.
I wrote this last year, but I’ll say it again:
Suppose you’re an atheist and the class valedictorian. You get up on stage and say something like, “God never helped me study for all those exams. God never helped me get a high SAT score. God never relieved my stress during those all-nighters. That was all me. I’m the one who worked hard. God doesn’t exist, after all.”
Or what if a Muslim student was voted by her classmates to speak at graduation? What if she thanked Allah for getting her through high school and then invited everyone to pray with her?
Would Liberty Counsel support their free speech rights? Would those schools be considered “friends” or “foes”? In theory, LC should support them, but there’s no mention anywhere online that I can find of them saying that, even in theory.
I sent them an email asking for clarification on their website about those examples and I’ll post an update if I hear back.