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.

"And you poke your finger into his belly, not in his side."

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