I enjoy reading articles on the battlefield of public schools and prayer. They are always a delicate balance of individual rights and separation of church and state. This time, per an article on Christian Broadcasting News combatively titled, “Senior Holds Prayer Despite Atheist’s Threats.” concerning Louisana’s Bastrop High School. The article title alone seems to be trying to make the atheist the sole villain when in actuality it is one atheist voice versus a Christian majority. The problem is, the majority does not rule when it comes to the constitution or the separation of church and state or the law in general. I don’t want to pretend there are any easy answers in this debate and that all religion is out because that can squelch religious freedom of students. On the other hand, school sanctified events such as graduation should not have an official prayer–or rather a Christian prayer. The event is for all students, regardless of beliefs, and should be kept secular.
The atheist involved was graduating student Damon Fowler who objected to a graduation prayer with official school approval. I’m not sure what constitutes a threat because he simply sought legal help after lodging his protest when the prayer was said despite any objections. The article leaves out “threat of a lawsuit” because it sounds worse to say just “threat.” You can conclude any number of things from bomb threat to vandalism to anything more vicious than contacting the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the organization involved.
A telling quote from the CBN article is this: “[Atheist, agnostic, and non-Christian students] respected the majority of their classmates and didn’t say anything,” said longtime Bastrop staff member Mitzi Quinn. “We’ve never had this come up before. Never.”
And that’s the problem. How many nonChristian high school students have the guts to stand up before the Christian majority and say, “I don’t believe in your god. Can’t we have a secular ceremony for a secular institution?” What Bastrop staff member Quinn is actually saying is why can’t Damon Fowler keep his mouth shut like all the other compliant atheists and agnostics.
Louisana’s Bastrop High School did reprint all of their graduation flyers to eliminate any reference to prayer once Damon protested. They mentioned a “moment of silence” instead, which is Christian code for prayer. It was senior Laci Rae Mattice who apparently broke protocol and started reciting the Lord’s Prayer. She said, “I respect the beliefs of other people, but I feel that I can’t go on without giving glory to my Lord today.” This wouldn’t be that bad, more along the lines of personal expression, except she went on to quote The Lord’s Prayer, a Christian prayer. This wasn’t respect, it was defiance. If Laci had been honest she should have simply said she believes her god to be the one true god and therefore her god overrides any separation of church and state and any other religion. By respect, most Christians are referring to a begrudging tolerance but not equal time.
To give perspective to the majority, how would Christians feel if Damon Fowler was the speaker and broke protocol on an approved speech by saying something to the extent, “I respect the beliefs of other people, but I do not believe in all your gods. There is no god.” Or if a Muslim student got on the podium and said, “”I respect the beliefs of other people, but I feel that I can’t go on without giving glory to Allah today,” and then begin to recite a Muslim prayer. It would not sit well–not in Louisiana.
The majority does not rule in these situations when it comes to tax-payer funded public schools (federal and state dollars, that’s atheist money too). If you want prayer, go to a private school. I’m no fan of public schools because of all these rules–I’d like there to be open religious debate and especially comparative religion classes which conservative Christians would despise–but the United States was built on protecting the minority as well as the majority and a separation of church and state is the only fair thing to do when all faiths and “absence of faith” cannot be represented equally. If Laci just gave a personal thank you to God, I think that would be acceptable. BUT turning the announced “moment of silence” into The Lord’s Prayer and asking fellow students to particpate (kind of like leading a prayer in church), I think that was disrespectful. I doubt she was reprimanded by the school for doing so and I’m sure she was congratulated for rebelling against secularism.
SIDENOTE: CBN also notes the Freedom from Religion Foundation gave Damon Fowler a student activist award of $1000 for speaking out. I know the insinuation here, so be it. Damon scored some cash for singling himself out as an atheist. If you want to think he did it for the cash, fine with me. I don’t think that was the case. As an awkward teenager, Damon is going to find that $1000 doesn’t get you too far in this economy. Hopefully he’ll be smart and start a retirement fund before Social Security runs out.