Christian Minister Offers $1,000 to First Student Who Prays to Jesus at High School Graduation in Florida District

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.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation urged them not to adopt the policy (PDF):

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.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Bill Santagata

    So he’s offering $1,000 for a student to break the law, in other words.

  • JoeBuddha

    Will he cover the school’s legal expenses?

  • Joe Zamecki

    I’d like to offer $20. to the student who disrupts that prayer.

  • Baby_Raptor

    That thing Jesus said about obeying the government he puts over you? Completely ignorable. Break the law however you want when you can say it was for Jesus!

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    FFRF gives scholarship awards for students who stand up for the US Constitution, so a christian minister offers a matching funds for students to violate the Constitution.

  • Ray

    I hope an atheist student is the winner.

  • Scott Fecher

    It’s not breaking the law as long as it is not school-sponsored. I still oppose it, but legally, that student would be following the letter of the law, just not necessarily the spirit of the law.

  • DougI

    Knowing fundies, he probably won’t even pay the student who prays.

  • rhodent

    I could have had great fun with this:

    “Dear Lord, now that the school has provided us with knowledge, I pray that you will bless my fellow graduates with wisdom: the wisdom to understand the value of separation of church and state. The wisdom to understand how attempts to sneak religion into government cheapens not just government but religion as well. The wisdom to understand that offering money to people for prayer does not make skeptics into sincere believers but rather makes believers into cynical opportunists. In short, the wisdom that has thus far eluded so many adults in our community. In Jesus’ name, amen.”

  • Renshia

    It must be horrible to be so stupid you just don’t get it.

  • WillBell

    I didn’t know free thought was the same as atheism…

  • Artor

    Nothing says sincerity like offering bribes for people to pay lip service to your god. If I were a student in the district, I’d totally take Klingenschmitt up on his offer. “Dear Jesus, protect us from ignorant fucktards who will stop at nothing to subvert the Constitution…”

  • Artor

    Yes, please tell us how that feels. You sound like an expert on the subject.
    Okay. maybe not, but I think you misinterpreted the comment above, if you were directing your comment to GodVlogger. Unless you were directing it at Klingenshchmitt, then you’re spot-on.

  • chicago dyke

    that guy has a really unfortunate face. no wonder he’s a religious con artist.

    nothing says sincerity of belief like “payout!” that’s faith for you. he’s so sure FL christian pastors have done such a fine job with youth, he’s only got to bribe them with $1K to get one of them to mention that all powerful creator of the universe.

    i got 2 pence for the first student to mention the FSM. His noodly appendage prevents me from offering more. Ramen.

  • jdm8

    But it still is, given that the school is organizing the event, and said event isn’t supposed to be about Jesus.

  • Geoff Boulton

    It would be nice if an atheist student stood up and said a prayer, thereby qualifying for the scholarship, and then followed it up by pointing out the stupidity of saying such a prayer under such circumstances. I wonder if the preacher would keep his end of the deal?

  • jdm8

    Obey God! Obey money! Promote God for money!

    You’d think that a Christian would understand the problem with that, from within their own belief system, but when you’re promoting theocracy, they’ll occasionally throw out their important teachings to win a minor skirmish.

  • Steve None

    I’m looking forward to the reaction when someone decides to pray to Satan.

  • TCC

    Looking at Renshia’s other Disqus comments, I suspect that the problem is an unclear referent for the above post – that is, I think the comment was directed at Klingenschmitt, not GodVlogger.

  • Thackerie

    And I don’t know how a person who lives by any sort of organized religion could ever be able to practice free thought.

  • TCC

    It’s not, but there’s a significant overlap between the two groups.

  • Rwlawoffice

    Just where is in the bible does it say that Jesus taught that?

  • Mick

    He certainly hasn’t got the money to pay anyone — this from his website:

    “I don’t have $1,000 lying around, so I really need a few donors to help me issue this public challenge.”

  • Alexander Ryan

    Does Raptor Jesus count?

  • michael both

    Heh, heh – you know the Xtians are getting desperate when they have to so shamelessly bribe their sheep in such a way. Maybe the guy is worried without the 1k incentive it’s not going to happen? :)

  • David B. Appleton

    Render then unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s. Which could be taken to imply obedience to the secular law, although the question he was asked was about whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the Romans.

  • SeekerLancer

    Exactly what I was thinking.

  • Brian Westley

    This is Gordon Klingenschmitt, so the answer is almost certainly no.

  • Brian Westley

    “Only to ten, Mudhead.”

  • Houndentenor

    My understanding of the labyrinthian case law on this subject is limited, but I believe that a student can do this of their own volition but the school is not allowed to demand that it be done. That leaves a murky area in which the school uses students to do what they cannot, but students have a right to practice their religion and to free speech. Schools cannot advocate one religion over another. That does create a big mess where most schools err on the side of caution and avoid the topic altogether.

  • Castilliano

    I’d do it.
    I’d do it “sincerely”.
    Then I’d donate it to an atheist/humanist/secular charity.
    The media coverage would be amazing, and the donations/scholarships from atheists (et al) would break $1000.

    *hint, hint* to any secular seniors in the region.

  • Bill Santagata

    This isn’t true: If the school gives a pulpit to a student to speak on behalf of the school, then the school is still responsible to ensure that the speech comports with the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court struck down a policy in Santa Fe Ind. School District v. Doe whereby students would recite prayers over the intercom at school football games. The fact that it was students giving the prayers made no difference.

    If the student speaker wants to credit his religion as part of his success (“My deep faith in Jesus is what always drove me to excel,” for example) this is perfectly constitutional. But the speaker can’t try to engage the audience in a religious practice (such as prayer) or turn their speech into a sermon.

  • JA

    A thousand dollars? For saying the lord’s prayer?

    Hell I’d say it for an easy 1k and laugh all the way to the bank.

  • onamission5

    Bribery: for when True Faith (TM) just won’t do…

  • Tobias2772

    I can see the difference between the FFRF offer and the klingon offer, but I bet he doesn’t see it and many of the people there don’t either. I think it is a thin and shaky difference.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    I don’t think the difference is so thin at all.

    FFRF is NOT giving scholarships for students to stand up and say Jesus is an idiotic myth.

    They give scholarships to those who report and oppose constitutional violations. FFRF advocates for the law, which says government (including government schools) need to be *neutral*. Neutrality means that the government venue gives no endorsement neither for nor against religion.

    The difference between FFRF and the minister would be ‘thin’ if either: 1) FFRF was rewarding anti-religious statements in a government venue (which would be the matching opposite from what the minister is actually doing), or 2) if the minister was rewarding students for opposing anti-religious statements in a government venue (which would be the matching opposite from what FFRF is actually doing).

  • stop2wonder

    He’s got his bases covered here. The deal says “sincere prayer”, and I’m sure he gets to decide who’s sincere and who’s not.

  • Earcatching

    “God, I would love a thousand dollars, in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

  • cipher

    Klingenschmitt is literally insane. He was cashiered from the Navy chaplaincy for this sort of nonsense. I say these kids start “accepting Jesus” one after another until they bankrupt him, or at least get him to STFU.

  • r.holmgren

    “Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.” Romans 13:1,2

    You’re absolutely right Raptor, far to many who call themselves followers of Jesus somehow justify not following Him in what He commands.

  • Tobias2772

    And yet both sides are offering rewards in order to try to manipulate young kids into fighting their battles for them. If a student is self-motivated to do either, then that is their choice, but I a little squemish about using young kids as pawns in our struggle.

  • Tobias2772


    I think you may be wrong here. In the football scenario, the student is given the mic for the specific purpose of praying.
    That’s school sponsorship.
    In the graduation scenario, the school gives the mic to a student as an honor or recognition and allows them to say whatever they wish. Many students say nothing about religion or god in such speeches, but if a student so honored chooses to weave such statements into their speech, the First Amendment protects that.
    That is my understanding of the current interpretations and precedents.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    I understand your concerns and you make good points.

    One additional distinction is that FFRF awards are retroactive, for activities already done. Conversely, the Christian minister is prospectively encouraging action, which would seem to have far more direct risk for manipulating the children.

    Overall, you make good points. Still, for better or worse,
    your ideas are FAR more likely to have freethinkers give pause to rewarding student activism that causing the religious to give pause to rewarding activism for their side.

  • WallofSleep

    Heh. That’s the one Bryan Fischer pointed to when he hilariously attempted to claim that the American revolution was not an act of rebellion.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Oh, look…A fundie who hasn’t read their bible. Cue the shock and awe…

  • dcl3500

    Ha, I would do it for a grand, wouldn’t mean anymore or any less because I am not a believer, but hey, money is money. ;)

  • Janet Oberholtzer

    Sounds familiar… I grew up strict Mennonite (almost Amish) and I know men how paid their kids $1,000 if they followed all the church’s rules.

  • LesterBallard

    Let’s offer some atheist student help with college or whatever in exchange for praying to Allah or Zeus or Cthulhu.

  • Bill Santagata

    It makes no difference if the speaker is a student or a teacher or the mayor. The school, in hosting this event, has a constitutional obligation to ensure that it presents its graduation ceremony in a secular manner. A student is only afforded the ability to speak before the audience on that stage because the school let him be there. It is therefore a school-sponsored forum, and the school must ensure that its forum is a secular one.

    This doesn’t mean that any and all mention of religion is unconstitutional. The speaker can, as I said, make reference to the influence that religion had in his life in a personal way that does not proselytize or attempt to engage the audience in worship. But the school cannot circumvent its constitutional obligation to host a secular ceremony by allowing a student or someone outside the school to deliver a prayer.

  • Neil

    That’s surely the most effective way to pray for money. Gordon will provide.

  • Camorris

    I was thinking the same thing! If he is really sincere he would make this offer.
    At first I thought he was offering the $1,000 from his own wallet, but then I learned that it is to be in the future from the ministry’s collection plate. He is not putting HIS money where his mouth is. This reminds me of the phrase “lets you and him fight”.

  • Camorris

    Except for the valedictorian, I can’t see why the administration would even allow each and every graduate time at the mike to say something.

    Graduations I have attended are already exceedingly lengthy, and the parents are mainly interested in witnessing their child walk up to accept their hard earned certificate and possibly awards.

    I would be really pissed if made to spend more time sitting through impromptu praying. My butt would already be sore from the hard seats, and what I really would want to be doing is celebrating with my child after the ceremony.

  • Randay

    You don’t necessarily have to point out the stupidity. You could just use satire. I would chose the appropriate part of the Will Ferrel movie “Talledega Nights – Prayer to Baby Jesus” segment.

  • Randay

    Apparently this video is real about a preacher saying a prayer before a NASCAR race.

    With this, the Illustrated Bible takes on a new meaning.

  • Goatless

    For $1000 I’d do it.

    Of course, the prayer would go something like

    ‘Dear god. Thanks for the thousand bucks. I plan to blow it all on hookers and cocaine*. In Jesus’ name, amen.’
    *I don’t actually advocate the use of harmful drugs or partaking in the sex industry.

  • abb3w

    Bill Santagata, I think the most recent federal appeals court ruling is from the Medina Valley High School case involving valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand; current case law appears to be as Tobias2772 indicates, rather than what you suggest. You might look through the settlement agreement from that case.

  • baal

    Schools vet the speeches and if there is a prayer, it’s the responsibility of the school. Go re-read the case law.

  • baal

    One federal appeals court is not national law. It’s only binding for that jurisdiction and others aren’t necessarily as lenient as the one that covers Texas.

  • abb3w

    True. Nonetheless, I’m not aware of any case law active in another circuit which would go against this.

    The most recent SCOTUS ruling on such matters would be Santa Fe v Doe, back in 2000. However, provided the school district was careful to not overtly encourage public prayer, not regulate the content of student remarks, use a meritocratic rather than majoritarian process for selecting speakers, and clearly divorce itself from the content of remarks (EG: as the settlement agreement does), it would not cross into the territory banned in the majority ruling of SFvD.

    As to the leniency of the 11th circuit, you can look up Allen v Santa Rosa and contrast SD vs St Johns County, as well as Selman v Cobb and contrast Bannon v Palm Beach. The net result seems to be a mixed bag, but nothing particularly less lenient than the 5th. It still looks like the school can do this, provided they color inside the lines carefully.

  • 3lemenope

    IIRC, isn’t Rwlawoffice Catholic? If so, it actually isn’t shocking at all that he doesn’t have Bible passages on-tap, as the Catholic laity is discouraged from proof-texting, armchair interpretation of scripture, and the like.

  • Tobias2772

    Actually, I didn’t read your first post carefully enough, I think you are drawing a line here that bears some merit.

  • Baby_Raptor

    He goes back and forth between claiming to be a devout believer and claiming to be an Atheist. He’s very prone to saying whatever fits his argument at the time.