JISHOU, HUNAN — I may seem to pay too much attention to religion in public high school graduation ceremonies, but for me it’s fascinating to see how the courts resolve two apparently conflicting clauses in the First Amendment.
On the one hand, the Establishment Clause states the government can neither promote a particular religion nor prevent the free exercise of any religion. On the other hand, the Free Speech clause prevents the government from limiting or banning speech or any other kind of expression, no matter how obnoxious it may be.
So, what happens when someone (a public school student, say) wants to talk about God or religion during a graduation ceremony? A public school is, after all, an institution of the government, so one might assume that student would have to rewrite the speech to omit the God stuff. This is exactly what school officials in a Nevada town believed in 2007 when they told Brittany McComb she had to take her witnessing for Jesus out of her valedictory. At first, McComb agreed, but when it came time to deliver her speech, she still referred to Jesus, etc., and school officials literally pulled the plug on her microphone.
If McComb were speaking just for herself, then her comments would have been protected under the Free Speech clause, although she was speaking to a captive audience in a public school. If, however, she were speaking on behalf of the school (or if a school official delivered such an address), it would run afoul of the Establishment Clause. A public school cannot legally teach one particular faith or insist its students, parents, staff, etc., worship in a particular way. Testifying would imply that there was only one “preferred” way to worship.
McComb took her case to the courts, claiming the school’s actions infringed her free speech rights, but her complaint died when the US Supreme Court declined to consider an appellate court ruling against.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Great Plains, Greenwood (Indiana) High School officials had their own clever idea this year. Why not poll the student body about having a mass vocal prayer during the graduation ceremony? If a majority approves (which it did), then surely there would be nothing unconstitutional about it.
Including a mass vocal prayer in a public school program does in fact violate the Establishment Clause. In fact, even posing the question — allowing a majority to decide on a religious act for the whole student body — violates the Constitution. U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker (a Reagan appointee) issued a preliminary injunction against the school prayer on April 30.
So what happened at this high school graduation? Did a student talk about God, and did school officials hysterically cut her mike off?
Class president Courtenay Elizabeth Cox gave thanks to God, and suggested everyone else should, and even quoted from the Bible — basically what Brittany McComb did in Nevada. It was her speech, and it was constitutionally protected. So, there was no drama.
More interesting is the speech given by the valedictorian, Eric Workman, who is the student who brought the whole issue before Judge Barker. After the student body voted for the vocal prayer last fall, Workman asked the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana to intervene. Needless to say, Workman is not the most popular guy in Greenwood High now, since like Mississippian Constance McMillen he is a “troublemaker” and not a “True Christian™”. Apparently, the graduation audience Friday was also not especially receptive to him or his message about the separation of church and state.
Considering the tone of his speech, Greenwood High School should be commended for letting him speak. He was, shall we say, a little blunt. Here’s an excerpt. The entire text is at the Friendly Atheist.
In September of last year, our remarkably doltish administration called upon us all to vote in deciding whether or not we wanted the Constitution of the United States to be flagrantly violated. Understanding the law and knowing right from wrong, I vehemently opposed such an atrocious act from ever taking place. However, my one voice and the voices of others were shouted-down by most of you. Our rights and the law were disregarded. You see, subjecting government-endorsed prayer to a majority rule is, in and of itself, unconstitutional, let alone the government approbation of said prayer. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson is quoted as having said, “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in [most] cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate [them] would be oppression.”
Workman, I might add, is a science student, but he knows the Constitution better than the adults in his school or community, it seems.
What if the graduation audience had been asked to pray silently? I’m not a lawyer, but I suspect if it were a voluntary prayer — a moment of silence — then it would be OK. Each person could pray in whatever way he or she wanted, or not at all. Many public meetings start this way, and seldom run afoul of the Establishment Clause. Having everyone pray out loud at the same time is a different matter.