Another Student Challenges His High School’s Graduation Prayer

A few years ago, I graduated from Irmo High School in Columbia, South Carolina. Over the past few years, Irmo has been no stranger to controversy. In 1998, they cancelled a concert by the Indigo Girls due to the duo’s homosexuality. During my senior year, they tried to block the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance — in fact, the principal resigned over it due to his “professional beliefs and religious convictions.” While I was still there, they had a graduation prayer that was put up to a vote by seniors during English class… (oh, that I knew then what I know now!)

Not only did this take up valuable class time, it’s illegal.

Luckily, despite being in an exceptionally conservative area, a student at Irmo has challenged the graduation prayer.

Max Nielson is a senior at Irmo High School, an Eagle Scout, an International Baccalaureate diploma candidate and… an atheist! Thanks to the story of Harrison Hopkins, a fellow South Carolina atheist, Max learned of the resources available to challenge the graduation prayer at Irmo High School.

Max Nielson

He emailed the principal at Irmo, who responded to him rather quickly, directing Max to the district policy on prayers for school events:

Benedictions and/or invocations at high school graduations and athletic events are permissible on the following basis.

  • The use of an invocation and/or benediction at a high school graduation exercise will be determined by a majority vote of the graduating senior class with the advice and counsel of the principal.
  • The use of an invocation and/or benediction at high school varsity athletic events will rest within the discretion of participating athletes, cheerleaders, band members and other student participants with the advice and counsel of the principal.
  • The invocation and/or benediction, if used, will be given by a student volunteer.
  • Consistent with the principle of equal liberty of conscience, the invocation and/or benediction will be nonsectarian and nonproselytizing in nature.

What that basically means is that, because there is an established district policy, the principal can’t (or won’t) back down on the prayer. Max has been in contact with the Freedom From Religion Foundation to go through with this challenge. Keep in mind the district is notoriously conservative, so while there may be a lot of support for Max from faculty members and administrators, it could be dangerous to their jobs if they decide to speak out.

South Carolina has something called the “South Carolina Student Led Messages Act” which basically means that school boards or districts can’t alter, modify, review, recommend or otherwise censor an opening or closing graduation speech. A student chosen to give a speech at graduation could invoke Allah or Zeus or whomever without any consequence.

However, Irmo doesn’t do that. There are two speakers for graduation in addition to the student chosen to give the prayer. The prayer is a completely separate entity, complete with its own committee and everything. All of this is put up to a vote, but considering the environment and student population, the odds are slim to none that the prayer would not happen.

I remember voting against this in homeroom, but it was something that made me nervous and there were a lot of students who were openly supportive of the prayer. It’s great that Max is stepping up to challenge the prayer at Irmo High School’s graduation. The rights of the minority are not something to be voted on, and it’ll be interesting to see how this case unfolds.

If you’d like to get in touch with the district expressing your support of Max, please (politely) contact Irmo principal Rob Weinkle and district Superintendent Dr. Stephen W. Hefner.

About Kelley Freeman

Kelley is a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina. She is a former president of the Secular Student Alliance at the University of South Carolina and a former intern for both SSA and Foundation Beyond Belief. Kelley is also a board member for both Camp Quest South Carolina and the Carolinas Secular Association, a Volunteer Network Coordinator for the southeastern region for the SSA, runs a vlog series called Secular Start Up, sometimes does stand up comedy and can crochet like a fiend. She's on her way to becoming a Jane of All Trades. Follow her on twitter @ramenneedles

  • Marguerite

    Yay for Max. Slightly off-topic, but how can he be an Eagle Scout and an atheist? I thought I’d heard the Boy Scouts had gotten very hard-core about insisting on religious beliefs lately. I hope the publicity doesn’t cause them to drum him out of the Scouts or anything.

    “…the invocation and/or benediction will be nonsectarian and nonproselytizing in nature.”

    Oh, I’m SURE it will be *rolls eyes*. Somehow religious people are all-too-frequently unable to tell when their own prayers are sectarian and proselytizing in nature. Or maybe they just don’t care that much.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503257844 Adam Evans

      Now he outed himself. The BSA will be asking back the Eagle. 

    • Max Nielson

      My Religious Affiliation Letter of Recommendation for the Rank of Eagle Scout was completed by Dr. Neal Jones, a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia. To the Boy Scouts of America, I am Unitarian. They accept Unitarianism (contentiously) as a valid religion. I am also an Atheist. 

      • Marguerite

        I see. That’s good to know, Max– although I’m sorry to hear that Unitarianism, which has a long history in America, is considered “contentious” by the BSA.

      • Ben Dreidel

        It’s not going to hold up. Read the “Declaration of Religious Principles” of the BSA – you don’t meet it.

        Though the BSA may be changing…they’ve removed quite a bit of stuff from their bsalegal.org site.

        This is a web capture from 2009 that is no longer on that website:http://web.archive.org/web/20091003111402/http://www.bsalegal.org/duty-to-god-cases-224.asp?f=18 

        ● Youth and Adult Volunteers

        Boy Scouts of America believes that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. Accordingly, youth members and adult volunteer leaders of Boy Scouts of America obligate themselves to do their duty to God and be reverent as embodied in the Scout Oath and the Scout Law. Leaders also must subscribe to the Declaration of Religious Principle. Because of its views concerning the duty to God, Boy Scouts of America believes that an atheist or agnostic is not an appropriate role model of the Scout Oath and Law for adolescent boys. Because of Scouting’s methods and beliefs, Scouting does not accept atheists and agnostics as members or adult volunteer leaders. 

        • Gus Snarp

          If he’s an Eagle Scout, he’s an Eagle Scout, they’re not going to take it away from him. If he’s still active they can kick him out, but he’s an Eagle Scout and that’s that.

          • Marguerite

            It would be sad if they wouldn’t accept him as an adult volunteer, though. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

      • Gus Snarp

        It seems as if you’ve been an atheist for some time, including while you were earning your Eagle. I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts on what it was like to be an atheist in the Boy Scouts. I was not an atheist when I was in scouts, and only became one long after receiving the Eagle. I don’t think I could have gone through Scouts  with my current attitudes and lack of belief, and have been considering sending my Eagle badge back with a letter expressing my dissatisfaction with the Scouts positions on the three Gs. If you did a substantial write up, I expect you could talk Hemant into posting it here.

        • Max Nielson

          It’s important to keep in mind that Scouting in America is a force for good, despite the influence of the wealthy Texan Republicans who control national policy. I kept that in mind, and it got me through my project and board. What you should remember, is that the Eagle Scout rank is evidence of your belief in America and the principals of a responsible humanitarian, not God. 

          • Emma Pease

             They only control the policy of the Boy Scouts.  The Girl Scouts of the USA are a separate organization.   The thing to remember is that Scouting/Guiding is international and interreligious (non-Buddhist atheists are a sticking point with some groups).

            I must admit the bit about UU being contentious is accurate.  There are actually two UU religious programs for Boy Scouts.  One the Boy Scouts recognizes but not the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and one the UUA recognizes but not the Boy Scouts.  I wonder which if either Max did.  The Girl Scouts mostly leave it up to the scout’s religion and as far as I know don’t vet religious programs though they leave it to P.R.A.Y., an independent program, to list major ones.

          • Bboykimchi

            Hey, not direct reply to what you said but, if you rant already you should do an AMA on reddit

            • Bboy kimchi

              Whoops, where I say “rant” I mean ” haven’t”

              • Wayndom

                That’s a helluva Freudian slip…

      • Susie

         How did you explain your atheism to your leaders and fellow Scouts? Or did you? Did you bow your head when prayers were said during ceremonies?

        • Kevin

          Not every troop makes a big deal about it (probably helps to be in the Northeast).  I was pretty naive about religion when I was active in the scouts.  I thought the references to God were pagan in nature.  Considering the significance of Indian lore in the OA and the focus of being in and conserving nature, I don’t think it would be a stretch to substitute God with Gaia.  Protecting and respecting the Earth is something that every atheist can endorse.  Its quite disappointing to see the discriminatory policies endorsed by the organization.

          -an atheist Eagle Scout

          • Dkschu

            That’s funny, I tried to join in 1961 and because I was an agnostic they wouldn’t let me join.  That was in NY.

        • Max Nielson

          It was, at first, a topic of vagary and secrecy. As I matured with the troop, it became a running joke for some of my friends. I was appointed as the Troop Chaplin’s Aide by someone who knew I was ‘exceptionally secular,’ and I fulfilled my duties in leading the prayer at the end of each troop meeting.  I know, beyond dispute, that public prayer makes me uncomfortable. 

      • Jennifer

        Max, I commend you for standing up for what is right, and doing your part to protect the separation of church and state. 

        After you win this battle with the school, you’d be an excellent representative to challenge the BSA’s discrimination against atheists.  That is, if/when they drop you for being a non-believer.

        Good luck!  Your atheist community is behind you!!!

      • ChildofParadise

        Been reading your comments, Max, and I must say you are a very articulate and intelligent young man.  You have my support, and I thank you for standing up for the laws of this land when those in power choose, instead, to flaunt them.

      • Flynnstone4

        Max, sounds like you were a bit deceptive in your eagle scout board of review and in subscribing to the BSA’s Declaration of Religious principle all those years, eh? “duty to god”, indeed!

        • Erp

           Not necessarily, the World Organization of Scouting Movement to which the BSA belongs  has an expansive and official definition of that duty that does not include a requirement to believe in a deity (otherwise there would be problems in places like Buddhist Thailand which has 1.2 million scouts).   If his board agreed with that definition and Max was honest about his beliefs, no problem.   It is also possible that Max has changed his beliefs as many do and ceased being a theist since he got his Eagle.

      • Adriane Fox

         Hello! I am a Dutch Fork grad of ’08, and I simply wished to thank you for the courage you possess (and I lack).

        Thank you so much!

    • Flyingace555

       Nah, I know a few eagle scouts who are athiest, no need to worry.

  • guest

    Why does it matter so much that you DON’T want to hear a prayer? Why are your beliefs – or non-beliefs, rather - more important than anyone else’s?  There would certainly be people upset by the lack of a prayer, so what you’re saying is that the offense you take is more important? That you are MORE offended because you choose not to believe in any God so those who choose to believe in one (or several) should just shut up about it already…? The school district is not newly introducing a prayer into their commencement excercises, they are merely continuing a tradition: one that’s voted on by the student body!  If this was purely a separation of church and state issue, I might be more inclined to agree with you, but that doesn’t seem to be anyone’s actual concern here.

    • Marguerite

      “Why does it matter so much that you DON’T want to hear a prayer?”

      Why does it matter so much to you to pray in public, and force those who don’t believe in your (or any) god to pray along or feel uncomfortable when they refuse to bow their heads? Why not just pray in private? Why must prayer be inserted into public events at every opportunity? Can’t God hear you just as well when you pray privately?

      “There would certainly be people upset by the lack of a prayer…”

      Why, exactly? Can’t they pray at home? In their cars? With their children before and after the ceremony? Why are public prayers so important to you?

      • guest

        It’s not so much about public prayer being important to me, I actually don’t really like praying out loud and on the very rare occasion that someone has asked to “pray with me” it made me really uncomfortable (I’m Catholic, we don’t really do a lot of that) - it’s more that I don’t see anything inherently harmful in public prayer.  It’s a declaration of support, not a call for the audience to turn to Christ or a condemnation of those who don’t believe.  I’m not really FOR public prayer necessarily, I just can’t wrap my head around why people are so against it.

         Unless it’s a street preacher telling me I’m going to hell for wearing shorts and/or drinking Gatorade (that actually happened to me once), then I get it.

        • Stev84

           Your religious privilege is showing

        • Marguerite

          “…
          it’s more that I don’t see anything inherently harmful in public prayer.”

          Well, of course you don’t– you’re Christian. Try the usual exercise of turning it around and imagining yourself a minority Catholic in a country full of Wiccans. Would you be perfectly okay with an invocation to a polytheistic pantheon of gods? Or might it make you feel just a wee bit uncomfortable?

          “It’s a declaration of support, not a call for the audience to turn to Christ or a condemnation of those who don’t believe.”

          There is no reason that a declaration of support for young people needs to refer to a god or involve prayer. Indeed, making reference to a specific religious belief necessarily has the effect of excluding some people. Is that a good message to send at what should be an inclusive event? Why not keep it secular?

          • Annie

            Excellent response.  It is so hard for someone to see that the very privilege that they enjoy is what clouds their ability to see a problem.  Kudos to all in the above discussion for being civil. And Guest, your calm disagreement is refreshing, and in my opinion, always welcome.

          • Derrik Pates

            The problem is, the way they see it, all other gods are lies, but theirs is “true”, and thus totally different from all those “myths”. So it’s totally not the same.

            Except for the part where it really is.

        • Onamission5

          It is a declaration of support for your particular religion alone, and a deliberate exclusion of everyone else’s beliefs, which is being sanctioned by the state.

          Gee, I wonder why anyone would have a problem with things that are  both exlusionary and unconstitutional?

        • amycas

          “It’s a declaration of support,”

          Exactly. It’s a declaration that an entity of the government should not be making.

          Street preachers are well within their rights to pray at me in public. It’s only when the government starts endorsing and encouraging it that I start to care.

        • Sue Blue

          Public prayer is not about “talking to God”.  It’s all about a show of piety meant to impress other believers and intimidate non-believers.  It’s discriminatory to non-believers because it deliberately produces an us-against-them situation in which non-believers are singled out by their non-conformity.  This belief in public prayer is just another indication that most christians don’t really read their bibles – especially the new testament, where loud public street-corner prayer is the mark of a hypocrite and private prayer is advocated.  
          Public prayer is a form of coercion – it’s a well known psychological phenomenon that people tend to go along with whatever the majority of people around them are doing.   No one wants to feel singled out or alone.  It’s religion by popular vote – unfortunately for the religious, human rights aren’t subject to popular vote.  No one should be pressured to conform to a religious view, no matter how many others do.

      • judith sanders

        It’s unconstitutional, as has been proven in court over and over.

    • http://southernhumanist.wordpress.com/ R. Lee Bays

      It matters because I shouldn’t have to listen to someone esle’s religious invocation at my secular graduation event? It’s not about what the majority of the people want.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daniel-Werst/1318164479 Daniel Werst

      by this logic, all beliefs should be equal. to be consistent, if you have a theistic prayer clearly to an Abrahamic god (and we know these people dont want to logically include Muslims), then any person who wants to should be allowed to give a Buddhist or atheist/secularist statement.

      otherwise youre just sanctioning the Christian majority to publicly treat its religion as official, which it is not. this is domineering. so fuck that

      • Hera-sistible

        From Wikipedia: The world’s largest religion is Christianity, whose adherents account for 33.35% of the global population; Islam is the second-largest religion, accounting for 22.43%, and Hinduism the third, accounting for 13.78%.[76] In 2005, around 16% of the global population were reported to be non-religious.[84]
        Interestingly enough, it is anticipated that these numbers will be radically changed within the next two dozen years. Enjoy facing the Holy Mosque in the city of Makkah, if your education that focused on prayer instead of, say, geography has taught you where it is.

    • Gus Snarp

      Why is it so important to you that local school violate the Constitutional rights of anyone who doesn’t share your beliefs?

      It’s really quite simple, and it’s not about how we feel about prayer per se, it’s about government endorsement of a religion. When a prayer is said at a school event it sends a message to students that their authority figures are endorsing a religion. The notion of non-sectarian prayer simply doesn’t cut it. Every Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or what have you knows that the prayer in question is not to their God, and it tells them that they are not, and can never be,  a part of that community in the way that a Christian is. They are being told that the school, the community and the government thinks they’re less fit to be members of the community, and that is the problem. 

      What you and many others don’t understand is that atheists don’t so much do this for ourselves, we do it for you. When Islam becomes the dominant religion, you’ll be singing a different tune about freedom of religion. When, in our dreams, the dominant religion becomes “none”, you’ll be glad that we’ve established strong precedent for preventing graduation speakers from telling you god doesn’t exist. And of course, we do it for the Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others who actually are deeply offended by a prayer that goes against their deeply held beliefs.

    • Philip Gray

        It matters because my children are being told, with each prayer, that their supposedly all-inclusive, tax dollar supported public school is in agreement with the religious message that they are worthy of eternal punishment simply for thinking differently.     That is not the religious freedom that our government is supposed to be granting citizens.
       You have the right to practice and promote your religion as you see fit.  No one has the right to have our government promote their religion for them.

    • Daniel Hendricks

      Christian Preference = A prayer to Jesus
      No Preference = No religious mention at all
      Atheist Preference = A short lecture on how all gods are myths

      Do you see how challenging prayers is not an assault on Christianity, but on a call for equality?  No one is asking that the Principal stand up and say, “These students are graduating today because they worked hard.  After all, there certainly aren’t any gods to have helped them.”  

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TLHIXVS2CHDJNWYPZJIZ5NNZ3A Robert

      “The school district is not newly introducing a prayer into their commencement exercises, they are merely continuing a tradition: one that’s voted on by the student body! ”
       
      You really don’t understand the concept of a constitutional democracy do you?  Does the idea of “tyranny of the majority” ring a bell?

    • Stev84

      Why can’t you be content with praying in church or at home? Why do you need to pray all the fucking time? And if you have a pathological need to pray, why can’t you pray on your own in silence (as Jesus instructed you to)? Why does your prayer need to be heard by everyone else?

      • guest

        Do you honestly consider a high school graduation to be “all the fucking time”? Come on now.  Also – happy to be able to give everyone something to talk about, this post would be awfully boring without the one simple minded Christian to mix things up a bit, right? You’re welcome

        • Stev84

          It’s not just graduation. There are schools that say some kind of morning prayer. Then there is prayer over lunch. Then there are often extracurricular Christians clubs in school.

          It’s not just in school either. In the US every single government meeting seems to start with a prayer. Or take the military, where there is a prayer at every social function, every formation, every ceremony and some people even start meetings with prayers.

          • Sue Blue

            Not to mention the Christian groups waiting outside the school doors to hand out tracts along with cookies and lure the  kids into their extracurricular programs…and the “abstinence only” religion-based sex education.  They’re everywhere, constantly in your face.  

        • amycas

          A graduation ceremony is supposed to be a celebration of the achievements the students had made in school and the hard work that got them there. Including a prayer elevates the religious above the nonreligious and makes the nonreligious (or just those who are uncomfortable with school prayer) feel excluded from this celebration.

    • Nick


      Why does it matter so much that you DON’T want to hear a prayer? 

      The US constitution prevents the government and public institutions (including public schools) from endorsing a religion. This leaves them with two options: give a prayer for each religion plus one for irreligion (not quite sure what an irreligious prayer is, but w/e), or give no prayer. If the school singles out one or a few religions, they are breaking the constitution by showing religious favoritism.

      > There would certainly be people upset by the lack of a prayer, so what you’re saying is that the offense you take is more important?

      Offense is not the issue. It’s the supreme law of the country which is the issue. Keep in mind that individuals are free to do whatever they like. Pray, don’t pray; it’s up to you. But a public school has to stay out of it.

      > The school district is not newly introducing a prayer into their commencement excercises, they are merely continuing a tradition: one that’s voted on by the student body!   

      Saying that the school district has a long history of breaking the law is hardly an argument in your favor. And as for it being voted on by the student body: you can’t simply vote on whether or not you will follow the law. If you like, you can try to change the laws, and there is indeed a process for making amendments to the US constitution. It’s a bit more involved than having a student body take vote though…

  • Gus Snarp

    I often imagine, if I could stand the hypocrisy, of starting my own Christian sect, based mostly on the book of Matthew and the Acts. One of our deeply held beliefs would be that prayer in public was a terrible sin, after all

    And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

    How would a devout Christian, who deeply believed these words of Jesus, be received if she complained about a graduation prayer?

    • Flyingace555

       But Jesus did pray in Public, quite a bit actually.  When he prayed for healings and specifically the resurrection of Laszarous in John 11:1-46 he prayed before a crowd.  The action of praying in public itself is not what the scriptures are preaching against in the quotes you’ve mentioned.  Prayer in private is indeed encouraged, and should be how you spend time with God, but it is not sin, or faulty to pray in public or with masses. Ya know?

  • Ben Dreidel

    How can he be an Eagle Scout and an atheist?

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      There are lots of atheists involved in the Boy Scouts, but they have to be quiet about it. Now that this kid is famous, no doubt the BSA will expel him from the organization. They’re not shy about going after people who don’t toe the party line.

  • Reason_Being

    It is so encouraging to see a continuing stream of young people standing up for what is right.  Particularly when it is not the popular or easy thing to do.  Thank you for continuing to share these stories.  They are inspiring to say the least.  I wish that I had the courage of my convictions at that age!

  • Eric

    “an International Baccalaureate diploma candidate”
    Always the IB! If you can contact him send my congratulations from the Paxon IB students for finally finishing up!

    Aside from that, the kid has a right to demand that there be no prayer. As stated in previous comments, why should he or any other atheist have to listen to prayer? In this particular sentiment, I think the upholding of the tradition is just the response of extremely butt hurt theists forcing their beliefs and propaganda on students. Also in regards to the Baccalaureate ceremony which is a traditionally religious service, it is optional to attend.

    • Barrett579

       So is graduation.

  • snoozn

    It’s great to see Max and other kids like him standing up for what’s right even when they’re still in high school. The high school I attended had the “rebels” as our mascot and people would run around the gym with confederate flags during pep rallies. I always found this racist and offensive, but I never spoke out against it. Finally enough people did speak up and this changed (not easily!) 

    So yes, more young people like this please!

    • guest

      Yes, because because forcing students to celebrate African-American culture during black history month and having clubs devoted to helping exclusively black students’ education is totally not racist but god forbid if someone waves a historical flag and it offends somebody.

      • http://twitter.com/futilityfiles Heina Dadabhoy

        As opposed to everything else in school, which is centered around celebration and acknowledging white people. One month is just too much to care about anyone but white people, I suppose.

        • guest

          I don’t know about your school but in my school white people are by no means celebrated. If someone said they were proud to be white, they would probably get called out for being a fascist neo-nazi however, if they were black, there would be no consequences whatsoever. Black history month just makes black people feel superior and entitled even though we’re all equal and the only true race is the human race.

          • The Pale Scot

            The “history” it signifies is treason in defense of slavery.

          • http://twitter.com/futilityfiles Heina D.

            It’s called “every history book and literature course ever” where all or most things are written by white people.

  • Ajlopez43

    With all due respect, I’m a student that goes to Irmo too, and well, I’m in a club that pretty much consists of just my church and anyone who wants to come. We talk about the bible every Thursday, and we have fun and talk and snack and whatever. But see, we had to stand up and ask for permission to do so. It was granted, but our club wasn’t even mentioned or pictured with all the other clubs in our yearbook. This frustrated me a bit, since we’d been in it two years prior. However, we are encouraged to stand out of the crowd and try to provide a doorway to maybe knowing about Jesus. Well, we baptized a guy from my school, and he’s a good friend of mine now. I hadn’t had the chance to meet him before he visited our club. I have tons of friends that are gay or atheist or whatever, I’m not going to bash them or say hey sinner, you’re zcrewing up! No. We just try to show people there’s another approach to things. And we give hope. The main idea of Christianity would be to bring people together for a common goal, and instill long lasting relationships and encourage one another while we worship our God. Even when we aren’t in service we hang out and have quiet times every day. Church activities and even summits. Now I believe that our cause is you know, just. It’s not easy standing up and saying hey, I want to just inform you that that’s not the best course of action for you to take, but we do. It’s not judging someone, it’s caring enough for that person to want them to go to heaven with you and not suffer, in death or even life. Christianity isn’t easy, and you may feel like you have to give up a ton of stuff, but its not like that. You gain like, eternal happiness and a relationship with someone who suffered for you. Died, for YOU. He loves you, we love you. I love you. My name is James, and I’m a graduating senior of Irmo High School.

    • Hera-sistible

      James, you know I like you, but if you started to prosthelytize in my presence, I’d have to suppress an urge to kick your butt. I’m not really good about people blaming their failures or (rarely) their successes in life on an imaginary friend when we appear to live in a day and age, especially when very few stand up and deal with their own behaviors, responsibilities and consequences — the core of America, civilization itself, is at stake because of that. The issue is NOT whether or not Christianity is the one true religion or whether your version of God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the supreme being; the issue is much more complex: separation of church and state; and the constitutional right to believe in one’s own religious convictions, as you had the freedom to state above AND I HAD THE CHOICE TO READ IT OR NOT (and comment or not). Public prayer doesn’t offer anyone a choice. It is force-fed dogma and it is intended, unfortunately all-too-often, to brainwash the listeners — that is nothing more than cultism, which means you might want to reconsider drinking the Kool-Aid at the post-graduation party.
      You know my sophomore at IHS is a member of GSA and has stood up for it as the first same-sex escort at Homecoming two years in a row. The self-righteous Christian attitude that prevailed over GSA’s beginning was bigoted, arrogant and, to my mind, totally against the tenets of any biblical teaching. Your club exists and didn’t have to fight to do so; are you okay with others having to justify their establishment when your club didn’t, or am I right in thinking that such resistance is indicative of closed minds dictating their perception of majority preference, when such representation might not even be based on reality but rather public/media relations?

      • Hera-sistible

         Sheesh. Typo… “especially when we appear to live in a day and age when very few stand
        up and deal with their own behaviors, responsibilities and consequences.”

      • Ajlopez43

        Look, I don’t really care all that much. If it wasn’t a problem years ago, why the heck is it one now? That’s all I ask. Now, let’s not kick my butt over it because I earlier stated, I don’t shove this down peoples throats.

        • Kelley

          It was a problem years ago, Max is just the first one who knew where to go and the resources available. I would’ve challenged it myself had I known what to do. 

        • Stev84

          It was always a problem and he certainly wasn’t the first one annoyed by it. But given the viciousness and utter hatred Christians usually display whenever something like this is challenged, most people are too afraid to speak up.

          You maintain your “traditions” by fear and intimitation. Are you really proud of that?

        • Guest

          James, regardless of whether you love your religion or not, forcing it on others in a public school graduation ceremony is wrong. The graduates are there to celebrate their successes, and those that are non-believers shouldn’t have to be forced to either choose to go or not to go, or be forced to listen to it.
          If you, as a Christian, feel you didn’t get enough from the graduation because it didn’t involve a prayer…gather with your Christian friends after the ceremony and say a prayer amongst yourselves or visit your church.
          Always look at controversial situations through other’s eyes. How would you feel if your school had a devil worshipping service during the graduation ceremony? What if they continued it year after year….would you not speak up? Wouldn’t make you feel so good…would it?

      • Glasofruix

        ” Now I believe that our cause is you know, just. It’s not easy standing
        up and saying hey, I want to just inform you that that’s not the best
        course of action for you to take, but we do. It’s not judging someone,
        it’s caring enough for that person to want them to go to heaven with you
        and not suffer, in death or even life.”

        “You know, i have nothing against you, but you know that you’ll go to hell if you stay like that?” I don’t see any respect in your statement, to me you’re an other christian asshole.

    • Onamission5

      Dear sweet, irrespressible, Maude, child. Do you even know where you are right now?

      *pops some popcorn*

    • amycas

       ^^^None of that has any baring on whether or not there should be prayer at a graduation ceremony.

    • Dakota

      This comment is more irrelevant than the ones concerning Max being an Eagle Scout. 

    • Glasofruix

       ” Now I believe that our cause is you know, just. It’s not easy standing
      up and saying hey, I want to just inform you that that’s not the best
      course of action for you to take, but we do. It’s not judging someone,
      it’s caring enough for that person to want them to go to heaven with you
       and not suffer, in death or even life.”

      “You know, i have nothing against you, but you are going to go to hell if you don’t start believing in MY magic skydaddy?” I don’t see any respect in your statement, to me you’re an other christian asshole.

  • Anon

    I have nothing to add about the OP, but congrats on the IB Diploma, Max, from a college senior who has one of her own! Be proud of yourself for all that work!

  • http://www.facebook.com/JohnAKieffer John Kieffer

    We were successful in removing graduation prayers from Hillsborough County (FL) HS graduations in 2010.   And just in time, my daughter graduated the following year (2011) from one of those high schools.  Info …   http://www.free2think.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=30&t=1079&p=7052

  • Kmix93

    Wow… If the vote won then there should be a prayer. tough luck kid. If this kid is an Eagle Scout I’m sure he has sat through countless prayers. That doesn’t mean he has to listen or pray. If you don’t want to hear the prayer, don’t attend graduation. It’s not a required to receive your diploma. I can’t believe someone would go out of their way to ban a prayer that won by majority vote. Get over yoursel kid it’s a high school graduation

    • Marguerite

      Of course! Because everyone knows that when something is voted up by the majority, that proves it’s constitutional!

      “If you don’t want to hear the prayer, don’t attend graduation. It’s not a required to receive your diploma.”

      And yes, why SHOULD anyone except Christians expect to feel welcome in this country? It’s a Christian country, you atheist pinko scum! Love it or leave it!

      • Kmix

        OK.  When the graduation is for the senior class, and the senior class as a majority votes to have a prayer at the graduation, then there SHOULD be a prayer.  simple enough.  You seem to have missed the part where i said this kid has most definitely sat through a countless number of prayers while in scouts.  What is any different about this one?  I have been a numerous situations where someone else shared there own personal beliefs through a prayer.  and what did I DO??? i sat there quietly for the ONE MINUTE or so that it lasted and respected everyone else. i mean damn… people these days…

        • Marguerite


          I have been a numerous situations where someone else shared there own personal beliefs through a prayer.  and what did I DO??? i sat there quietly for the ONE MINUTE or so that it lasted and respected everyone else.”

          Me too. Can’t very well avoid prayers at Thanksgiving and Christmas when I have Christian in-laws. That’s a voluntary choice. So is Scouts, really. But YOU seem to have missed the part where this is a PUBLIC school. It shouldn’t be endorsing any particular religion, or for that matter, any religion at all. And a prayer (no matter how supposedly “nonsectarian” it is) IS an endorsement of religion. Why should kids in public school be forced to sit through a religious display of any sort at their own graduation? 

          • Kmix93

            He is not forced to sit through anything. He is not forced to attend graduation. Attendance is not necessary to receive his diploma. And when the MAJORITY of students whom WILL be attending voted to have a prayer than so be it. Stop trying to act like people are be forced to do something unwillingly. If the prayer is seriously that big of a deal to this kid, than don’t attend. Its as simple as that.

            • Onamission5

              Because if something is unconstitutional and exclusionary, minorities should just shut up and go away?

          • Kmix93

            If the school wants to have a prayer
            For the flying spaghetti monster god
            Than so be it. However, there must be a MAJORITY VOTE from the students whom the graduation is for in the first place

            • Marguerite

              I’m going to try to curb the snark this time (now that I’ve had some caffeine) and politely point out that just because a majority votes for something, that still doesn’t make it constitutional. Nor does it make it right. The majority doesn’t always have the right to force its will on the minority. Despite what you seem to be implying, that is not the American way. 

              And that, I think, is all I will say on the matter.

              • Kmix93

                And just because something is “unconstituonal” doesn’t make it wrong. Maybe one day you will learn.

                • Max Nielson

                  No, it just makes it illegal. 

                • Kmix93

                  Whatever helps you sleep at night kid. When it’s all said and done you’re likely going to have to sit through the minute long prayer or not attend. Maybe you should bring some earplugs for when the prayer begins

                • Kmix93

                  It’s funny because most of the atheists I come across are no different than the religious people they ridicule

        • Guest

          The BSA is a private organization. The school is a public, government funded one. It’s not their prerogative to choose whose religion deserves what prayer at any event within their premises or sponsored by them. It is not even the majority’s decision, this is neither a club nor a private school. It defers to the constitutional law, as does every governmental and public institution within this country.

  • Fsq

    You go Max!

    But one question….how did he become an Eagle Scout if he is an atheist?

  • Guest2946392

    Hope this kid has fun in hell

    • Stev84

      Feel the Christian “love”

    • http://twitter.com/headphase Tim Brown

      Well, he is in South Carolina.

  • Katherine

    Good luck, Max!

    I go to Lexington High and I only wish I was as bold as you.

    Also, loving the fact that you’re in IB too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cameron-Willadsen/550975056 Cameron Willadsen

    I sent emails(polite ones :) ) To both of the provided emails giving my support for Max’s actions. This atheist in a foxhole cannot express enough how thankful I am for young folks like Max, Kelly,etc.

    • Barrett579

       Cameron, if you ever have a reason to truly be in a “foxhole” you might just feel the need/desire to cry out to the God you deny.  America is still free and freedom of expression is a constitutional right last time I checked and the policy reads majority rules.  Let’s be glad that is still the way our country works.  We teach tolerance of everything ” but” Christianity.  Sad

      • Onamission5

        Did you really just trot out ‘tyranny of the minority?’  Listen carefully. It is damn near impossible for a marginalized minority to oppress the ruling majority. If you’re making all the decisions, asking you to be fair isn’t intolerance. It’s the opposite of intolerance. Know what’s intolerant? Telling nonchristian kids to miss their graduation so you can get your pray on.

        Asking the majority to recognise that just because there’s more of them, doesn’t give them the right to trample on others, is not persecution. Your solution would be to exclude all non-christians from attending their own graduation, because christians want their graduation to resemble a church service? You go to church because you want to, it’s voluntary. No need to inflict church upon the rest of us against our will just because you want to attend more days a week than Sunday. Any reason you can’t pray quietly the way jesus commanded instead of making a big, imposing show of how pious you are?

        Many atheists including myself have experienced life or death situations. We didn’t cry out for any deities. Who has time to conjure up magical wishes for invisible friends when there’s problems to solve and surviving to be done?

  • Kathi Freeman

    What you are doing takes courage and for many it is threatening.  Change is always scary for those who do not adapt to it well.  I will quote the great writer and sculptor William Blake “Without contrast there is no progress”. 

    I am proud of you Max.  You are a phenomenal young man who is intelligent, articulate and for your age accomplished.  You’ve earned the right to stand up for something you believe in and for something which is right.   

  • Notavalidemail

    Hmmm we should probably start filing cases against alot of politicians too, they say “God,” all the time in their speeches, following this line of logic, that is also a violation of the Establishment Clause.

    • Max Nielson

      False. A politician speaks for themselves in this sense, they are not appointed to a religious position by the state.

      The individual giving the prayer at Irmo High School is speaking on behalf of the school, as evidenced by their appointment to that speaking position during the graduation ceremony- By the school.

      • Barrett579

         Wrong Max.  He is speaking on behalf of the student body.  Again, majority ruled.

        • http://www.facebook.com/kmix93 Kyle Mixøn

          max. OWNED

  • Acco1st

    At first I was going to point out how dorky Max looks in that pic…  But then I thought back to myself at Irmo… Uh, Max, it gets better as you get older.  Hang in there.

    Secondly, I wanted to agree that there should indeed be separation of church and state.  As a Christian, I would not approve of my graduation having only a Muslim or Hindu prayer, or an Atheist praying to any pasta beast that may fly by.  I get it and I think anyone that truly believes in this country and the Constitution does also.  If I found out my child’s teacher started class every day with a Wiccan chant I’d hit the roof!  A general ‘moment of silence’ could be used to allow for personal reflection.  Yes, coming from the south and very used to prayers at all events, that sounds cheesy as all get out.  The other option would be to get every graduates preference and do something for each.  But to get this country back to where we need to be, we either follow the constitution or we fail. 

    One last thing.  One poster mentioned that if you found yourself in a country that was majority Wiccan and they were having a prayer, would it make you feel uneasy.  I say, no.  I would respect their heritage and traditions and let it pass.  However….  if that was in the USA, and at a public gathering, while I would not feel uneasy (I am strong in my beliefs), I would most certainly protest and work for change until it came.

    Good luck Max.  I do believe in the Constitution and this great country…  And I’ll most certainly be praying for you personally.

  • Biertje

    What did the poor suckers pray for anyway? Better grades?

  • Izzy’s mom

    Majority rules…..I am sorry Max felt it was soo terrible to have to sit through that one minute prayer…but in life we all sit through uncomfortable situations…..and we all live through it….

    • DealWithItBrah

      Wrong. If the majority always ruled, we would have no use for rights. You can’t vote on rights. We either have them or we don’t.

  • Guest

    why is it always the athiests who bitch? i go to irmo and everyone i know who is of a non christian religion voted on the prayer. and if we had wanted to then we could have voted no for the prayer so the student body was in support…


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