Last month, the St. Johns County School Board (Florida) considered adopting a policy that would let high school seniors deliver “inspirational” messages during graduation ceremonies. Inspirational, of course, is just a code word for prayer.
Once the board passes this policy, it will have no ability to police student speech. Students could seize the opportunity to talk about anything — sex, gay marriage, politics or religion. They could denigrate other religions and declare that only Christians will go to heaven, or that only Muslims, or Buddhists or atheists will have an eternal reward.
… If this policy is adopted, its religious intent cannot be hidden.
There are two reasons why no other district in Florida has used this new law to pass such a policy. First, it is unwise to give high school students a microphone with no restrictions on what they can say. Second, the Board that first passes this policy is asking for a lawsuit.
FFRF added that they routinely give scholarships to students who stand up for church/state separation and they would publicize this policy to members in hopes that a student in the area would find a way to fight back.
The school board’s lawyer, Frank Upchurch, understood the consequences of turning graduation into a free-for-all church service and got the board to vote against such a policy.Meanwhile, Gordon Klingenschmitt, a former U.S. Navy chaplain, has taken the very blunt and completely opposite approach: He’ll give money to the first student who prays to Jesus during the district’s graduation ceremony (watch at the 5:24 mark in the video below):
Our ministry is hereby offering a $1,000 scholarship to the FIRST high school student who prays either the Lord’s prayer (Our Father…) or says a sincere prayer ending “in Jesus’ name,” on the school microphone at his or her graduation ceremony in St. John’s County, FL school District #2
In fact, this sort of “challenge” is just more reason for the district to get away from the awful policy. The moment they approve it, religious students are going to turn a graduation ceremony meant for everybody into an opportunity to proselytize to a captive audience. That’s not what graduation should be about and the school board is wise to avoid the controversy altogether by limiting what students can say during their speeches. It’s not censorship. It’s not a violation of the First Amendment. It’s all about making sure the ceremony is a celebration of all the students for their work over four years, not a punishment for those who happen to not be part of the majority faith.