June is the time of year for high school graduation ceremonies, and the time for that annual battle of the culture wars when Christians try to turn them into religious services. This year the outcome was a distinct and disappointing setback for the separation of church and state.
Louisiana’s Bastrop High School distributed programs for their graduation that listed a prayer to convene the event. A graduating senior, Damon Fowler, wrote in protest to Principal Stacey Pullen, objecting that the inclusion of a prayer violates his religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment. Fowler stated that if the prayer were not removed from the agenda he would take the matter to the ACLU. When Morehouse Parish School System attorney Steve Katz advised school officials that prayer could not be part of a school-sanctioned event, Pullen acceded, and had new programs printed that substituted a “moment of silence.”
When the word of Fowler’s actions became known, Christian zealots at the school initiated a campaign of bullying him. He was threatened with violence. His Facebook wall was flooded with hate-postings, forcing him to deactivate his account.
The final insult occurred on graduation night. When the moment of silence was announced, Graduating senior Laci Mattice walked to the lectern and said that her faith compelled her to thank God for blessing the class of 2011. “I now ask my fellow students who wish to join in to recite the Lord’s Prayer.”
There was nothing spontaneous about it. Principal Pullen said that he had hired extra security guards, in fear that the event would be disrupted by atheists. This comment is a gratuitous insult, since only Christians threatened violence, in bullying Fowler. The atheist threat was to take legal action.
In Texas, the plans for prayer at the Medina Valley High School graduation did make it to court. Like Fowler, Christina and Danny Schulz wrote to the school to object, on behalf of their son, a graduating senior, to the school’s plans to include prayer in the ceremony. When their letter was ignored, they took their case to Americans United for Separation of Church and State. U. S. District Judge Samuel Frederick Biery, Jr., on the last day of May, issued a preliminary injunction that ordered the school to drop the planned invocation and benediction from the ceremony.
It was an easy decision, since the Supreme Court ruled in Lee v. Weisman, 1992 that public schools may not impose prayer and religious worship onto students and their families during commencement ceremonies. In that ruling, Justice Kennedy wrote: “It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise to act in a way that establishes a religious faith, or tends to do so.”
End of story? Not quite. Three days later the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit dissolved the preliminary injunction tersely: “On this incomplete record at this preliminary injunction stage of the case, we are not persuaded that plaintiffs have shown that they are substantially likely to prevail on the merits, particularly on the issue that the individual prayers or other remarks to be given by students at graduation are, in fact, school sponsored.” But, according to Lee v. Weisman, to constitute an Establishment Clause violation it is only necessary that the school sponsor the event, not that it dictate the content of the prayer.
In the debate by Republican presidential candidates, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty was asked to define the separation of church and state, and to explain how that would affect his decision-making. Pawlenty’s answer showed that he is no friend of the separation of church and state:
Well, the protections between the separation of church and state were designed to protect people of faith from government, not government from people of faith. This is a country that in our founding documents says we're a nation that's founded under God, and the privileges and blessings at that we have are from our creator. They're not from our member of Congress. They're not from our county commissioner.
And 39 of the 50 states have in the very early phrases of their constitutions language like Minnesota has in its preamble. It says this, "We the people of Minnesota, grateful to God for our civil and religious liberties," and so the Founding Fathers understood that the blessings that we have as a nation come from our creator and we should stop and say thanks and express gratitude for that. I embrace that.