South Carolina Superintendent Chooses To Go Forward with High School Graduation Prayer

Last week, Max Nielson contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to file a complaint against Irmo High School in Columbia, South Carolina. Irmo has a long standing tradition on holding a vote among the seniors as to whether or not to have a prayer during the graduation ceremony.

The school district ignored the cease and desist letter (PDF) from the FFRF on Max’s behalf. 

Attorney Aaron Kozloski sent (on behalf of FFRF) another cease and desist letter (PDF) on Friday. This one was more blunt:

You were previously contacted by FFRF and asked to refrain from violating my client’s rights. It is my understanding that you have refused to do so. I hope you will avoid the time, trouble and expense of litigation and honor my client’s request by immediately prohibiting delivery of the graduation prayer, and by rescinding or suspending the unlawful district policy.

If the prayer is delivered, it is my clients’ present intention to seek damages, permanent injunctive relief, and under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, attorneys fees and costs. Should you have any questions, please contact your own attorney.

Over the weekend, many of you emailed Dr. Steve Hefner (superintendent of the school district) and Rob Weinkle (principal of Irmo High School). Despite all of the emails and both letters, the superintendent and Lexington/Richland District 5 are refusing to back down.

Today, at 12:00p in the Carolina Coliseum, there will be a prayer at Irmo High School’s graduation.

Which means the Lexington/Richland 5 School District is going to be sued.

Dr. Hefner met with Max yesterday to discuss possible outcomes of the complaint, but he ultimately declined the request to cancel the prayer. He eventually replied to Max with his decision in an email:

I have reflected on everything you said during our meeting and, while I empathize with your position, I do not believe that I can in good conscience grant your request for me to step in and interfere with the decision of a majority of students who voted earlier this school year to include a prayer at their graduation ceremony.

As I mentioned to you during our conference, while I am a staunch supporter of the separation of Church and State, I do not believe that Freedom of Religion should be interpreted as requiring Freedom from Religion within the public schools.  Here, I most [sic] note that I disagree with your characterization that the prayer in question is State-sponsorship or endorsement of the Christian faith.  The decision to offer a prayer tomorrow was initiated by and will be offered by students, who in so doing are exercising their Freedom of Religion, with the School District’s only involvement being administrative as far as the distribution and counting of the ballots.

I’m not sure how one can be a staunch supporter of the separation between church and state and yet still decide to go through with the prayer. I’m also amused that Dr. Hefner says he doesn’t believe that freedom from religion falls under freedom of religion considering who he is being sued by.

As far as the worry that Max’s case will be invalidated after he graduates (it’s possible that he couldn’t have an injunction since he can only graduate once) — there is already someone who has agreed to sign on as a  co-plaintiff from the Irmo Sophomore class. Max has been lucky in that he has gotten a lot of support from his fellow classmates as well as a lot of Irmo alumni.

In the meantime, Max sends his thanks to those of y’all who emailed Dr. Hefner and Mr. Weinkle over the weekend.

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

    “…I disagree with your characterization that the prayer in question is State-sponsorship or endorsement of the Christian faith.  The decision to offer a prayer tomorrow was initiated by and will be offered by students, who in so doing are exercising their Freedom of Religion…”

    It’s funny how “freedom of religion” is always a good thing when it props up Christianity. If all the students vote to give an invocation to Satan next year, watch how quickly the principal decides freedom of religion and the majority vote isn’t all that important after all.

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    Do you have a concept of “misfeasance in public office” in the US? It would be nice to hold the individuals responsible for once rather than just the school district.

    • Fsq

      Totally.

      It is the decision of a couple of idiots. Hold the. Up and prosecute.

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

    It is amazing how few people remember the most basic principles of a constitutional democracy.  Yes, it is majority rule but the written constitution, is there to protect the minority, not prop up every majority group.  Don’t these “educators” understand the concept of “Tyranny of the Majority”?

  • jdm8

    “I’m also amused that Dr. Hefner says he doesn’t believe that freedom from religion falls under freedom of religion considering who he is being sued by.”

    You’re right. Does the school district not have a lawyer? The judicial system disagrees with him on that point.  You can’t let citizens, students or otherwise, use government resources to push select religious viewpoints. Everybody has an opportunity, or no one gets one. I don’t see where choice by majority satisfies that requirement, because it excludes the minority.

    • LifeInTraffic

      It intentionally, implicitly excludes the minority. How Dr. Hefner doesn’t understand that makes me question where he got his Doctorate.

  • Annie

    If the school distributed and counted the ballots, as Dr. Hefner wrote,  then this wasn’t student-led.

  • Javier

    So if a majority of the students voted to reinstate slavery,  would Dr. Hefner promote that too?

  • Will

    Kudos, Max. Kudos.

  • koseighty

    ” … I do not believe that I can in good conscience grant your request for me to step in and interfere with the decision of a majority of students who voted … ”
    So, if the a majority of students voted to smoke some marajana at graduation he couldn’t “in good conscience” remind the students that that would be illegal.  Because…. majority.

  • Nick

      I have to disagree, Kelly, even as a fellow atheist and free-thinker. If the prayer was being led by members of the faculty, I could see the point being made by the FFRF. But the superintendent makes a pretty clear case: this was decided on by the students, the prayers will be performed by the students (not faculty) and this would fall under the free expression of religion provisions of the First Amendment. 

    • unclemike

      I have to disagree, Nick. If the prayer is being held in a building that was paid for by tax dollars, at an event paid for by tax dollars, does it really matter who says it?  I’m sure the students would vote for a lot of different things that wouldn’t be approved by the school–wonder why this is the exception?

    • Kelley

      Nick, spell my name right.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=628665833 Bill Santagata

      This is not at all the case. See Sante Fe Independent School District v. Doe. The school, in giving the student chaplain a platform to broadcast the prayer to the audience, is necessarily endorsing the content of that prayer and it is invalid regardless of whether or not the speaker is a student or the class voted on it. As the Court wrote in Board of Regents of Univ. of Wis. System v. Southworth  “To the extent the referendum substitutes majority determinations for viewpoint neutrality it would undermine the constitutional protection the program requires. The whole theory of viewpoint neutrality is that minority views are treated with the same respect as are majority views. Access to a public forum, for instance, does not depend upon majoritarian consent. That principle is controlling here.”

  • Onamission5

    It’s really a shame that administrators are willing to sacrifice such a large chunk of their school budgets for battling lawsuits that shouldn’t have had to happen in the first place. SC has enough problems with their school system as it is without draining money away from students and schools in the interest of religious pandering.

  • vaclavhavelsmustache

    I think it’s time that secular students started bringing air horns to these events and blowing them during the prayers. If they’re not going to respect the rules of the Constitution, why should their illegal prayer be afforded respect? 

  • Robyman44

    So the Christians have won this one. Okay, fine. Go ahead and let them pray. Let them be loud and earnest in their prayers on that day. It won’t make any difference because NOTHING FAILS LIKE PRAYER.

  • judith sanders

    I hope there is some way the cost of the suit can be borne by the individual(s) who choose to go ahead and violate the law.  I hate to see money taken away from school districts- it hurts all the students. 

  • guest

    Superintendent is an idiot.  He basically goes for the majority.  So if the majority of us said we wanted to use the school budget to get everybody iPads, would he be so stupid as to grant us that? Oh wait…


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