Liberty Counsel’s Annual Push for Christian Students to Pray at Public School Graduations

Public school graduation ceremonies are supposed to be celebrations for everyone involved, which is why it’s so frustrating when Christians try to use the venues as an opportunity to proselytize to a captive audience.

This year, like they’ve done many times before, Liberty Counsel is encouraging Christian students who get a chance to speak onstage to pray to Jesus and they’re making sure students know all the legal loopholes (PDF) to make it happen:

“The key to expressing any religious viewpoint in public school, including graduation prayer, is that the school should remain neutral — neither commanding nor prohibiting it,” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel.

“Students do not lose their constitutional right to free speech when they step to the podium at graduation,” Staver said. “To allow a variety of viewpoints except religious viewpoints at graduation is religious hostility and unconstitutional. While schools should not force people to pray, neither should they prohibit them from praying.”

This is part of their “Friend or Foe” campaign, a title they also use when pointing out retail stores that use the word “Christmas” (or don’t) in their holiday advertising.

The purpose of Liberty Counsel’s annual “Friend or Foe” Graduation Prayer Campaign is to protect religious viewpoints at graduation. Liberty Counsel will be the friend of schools that recognize the free speech rights of students and the foe of those that violate their constitutional rights. The key to graduation prayer is that the school should remain neutral — neither commanding nor prohibiting voluntary prayer or religious viewpoints.

It’s not that Staver’s wrong; it’s that he’s being a dick. He’s trying to turn a graduation ceremony into a church function, with no regard or respect for how non-Christian students would feel. He just doesn’t care about them.

Keep in mind a lot of these loopholes are directed less at the students and more at the administrators. If they just keep their hands off the ceremony (*wink wink*) and look the other way regarding students’ speeches (*nudge nudge*), they can’t be blamed if a student prays at the podium.

Prayer can still be conducted at public school graduations if school officials use secular criteria to invite the speaker, and once there, the speaker voluntarily prays. A valedictorian, salutatorian, or class officer can also voluntarily pray as part of the ceremony. The student body can elect a class chaplain or elect a class representative for the specific purpose of prayer. Part of the school program can be given over to the students and therefore be student-led and student-initiated. A parent and/or student committee can create and conduct part of the ceremony and, therefore, avoid state involvement. The ceremony can be conducted off the school premises by private individuals, and therefore no state involvement would occur. The school may also adopt a free speech policy which allows the senior class an opportunity to devote a few minutes of the ceremony to uncensored student speech that can be secular or sacred. Finally, private individuals can sponsor public school graduations on or off the public campus.

I wrote this last year, but I’ll say it again:

Suppose you’re an atheist and the class valedictorian. You get up on stage and say something like, “God never helped me study for all those exams. God never helped me get a high SAT score. God never relieved my stress during those all-nighters. That was all me. I’m the one who worked hard. God doesn’t exist, after all.”

Or what if a Muslim student was voted by her classmates to speak at graduation? What if she thanked Allah for getting her through high school and then invited everyone to pray with her?

Would Liberty Counsel support their free speech rights? Would those schools be considered “friends” or “foes”? In theory, LC should support them, but there’s no mention anywhere online that I can find of them saying that, even in theory.

I sent them an email asking for clarification on their website about those examples and I’ll post an update if I hear back.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

    “Or what if a Muslim student was voted by her classmates to speak at
    graduation? What if she thanked Allah for getting her through high
    school and then invited everyone to pray with her?”

    At least the first two parts of that must have happened at some point, somewhere in the US, surely?

    • JKPS

      Did a quick Google search but couldn’t find anything. It was a *really* quick Google search, though.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    scholarships for atheist students who read aloud a call to reason. that’s what we need.

  • busterggi

    I will never understand why theists worship such an insecure god.

    I’m only human and I don’t need people fawning all over me to get through my days.

    • Kengi

      This tells you much about the people who created that god. Most gods are created with the human traits and failings of their creators.

      • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

        The way I’ve heard it said is “You know you’ve created god in your own image when he hates the same people you do.”

    • Spuddie

      They believe God takes attendance.

      • allein

        “I don’t object to the concept of a deity but I’m baffled by the notion of one that takes attendance.” – Amy Farrah Fowler

    • L.Long

      ALL supernatural beings need us humans to fawn all over them. Even Disney knew this–remember Tinkerbell?
      Look at Zeus, all but gone, now that there are no people actively fawning all over him.

      • Spuddie

        But Cthulu merely sleeps. Waiting for the moment when the stars are just right to rise from the depts of R’lyeh.

  • JET

    At my kids’ high school, fundie speech makers would have been snickered off the stage by both believers and non-believers. Our schools also have baccalaureate ceremonies, held off campus and completely optional. Only a very small percentage bother to attend. My daughter’s Lutheran university did the same thing, although the religious ceremony was held in the campus chapel and attendance was higher. Not one single prayer at graduation. I like to keep reminding myself that major parts of the country are not insane.

  • LesterBallard

    Have some kids, whether they’re truly believers or not, offer prayers to Allah and Vishnu and Thor and various other deities. And a blood sacrifice to Yahweh.

  • Tom

    Why are so many people bent on proselytising at functions of completely irreligious purpose such as graduations, when they could do it at any other time in any public place? The principal advantage seems to be to be that it gives them a captive audience, that isn’t allowed to respond to them, and moreover one that they don’t have to do anything to attract to them in the first place.

    I think it speaks volumes of the content of a person’s message when they prefer not to have to attract an audience by virtue of said content, to be immune from having to subsequently defend anything said, and that the audience not be able to walk away.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

      The principal advantage seems to be to be that it gives them a captive audience,

      DING DING DING!

    • Free

      What are you afraid they may something that makes you uncomfortable or strikes an inner nerve. You want the right to free expression of your views about your life. Let them do the same. That is what separates us from the monkeys.

      • Kengi

        Talk about missing the point! The post you are replying to was about the need for a “captive audience”. Do you understand that? You may have a limited right to free expression, but you don’t have the right to a captive audience.

  • L.Long

    The worse part of this effect is they are telling everyone ….

    “Thank you jesus for getting me thru this because you know I’m a looser, my teachers and parents are incompetent and all the work they & I did was not what allowed me to succeed but my faith in you. And I know you are the one responsible to get the other xtians thru this cuz ya know they are losers too. And as I go on I know I’m still not going to do good enough cuz ya know I’m still a looser and will need your help.”

  • Free

    Sounds like they want to preserve and exercise their right to religious expression. This is America. Remember, protecting their constitutional right to pray and voice their prayer for hope, peace or whatever ensures others the right to do the same. So yes, if an atheist were to discredit God for their success they have that right as well. Duh? Stop the fussing this is America.

    • allein

      They can thank God all they want in their speech if they feel the need to give him/her/it credit; they don’t have the right to turn their speech into “prayer time” and coerce the captive audience of fellow graduates and their families watching to pray with them.

    • Kengi

      Your rights to free expression are much greater in the public square. In the setting of an official public school assembly, those rights are, correctly, more limited for the reasons people are discussing.

      Your simple claim of unlimited “FREEZE PEACH!” doesn’t recognize reasonable real-world limits.

      This is America. Perhaps you should learn the laws of the land.

  • rwlawoffice

    So telling students what their constitutional rights are to free speech automatically turns a person into a dick. I will remember that the next time you praise the Freedom from Religion Foundation for doing the same thing or when you talk yourself about the constiutional rights of students who want to pass out secular materials at schools.

    But from what I see on this site its only Christians who are called that for expressing their beliefs.

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

      There is a difference between speaking from a personal forum and speaking from a school-sponsored forum. A person up on stage at a graduation is only there by dint of the school allowing him to be there, to speak at an official public school function. Therefore, what is said in this forum crosses a somewhat blurry line from personal speech into government speech, the latter of which must comport with the Establishment Clause.

      It’s different from walking into a park and handing out flyers or wearing a t-shirt out on the sidewalk saying how much you love Jesus. The right to free speech does not allow you to co-opt a government-sponsored forum attended by a captive audience to promote a religious belief.

      • Rwlawoffice

        I disagree with your contention that it not be unconstitutional to prohibit a student from me tinning God in a students speech at graduation. But that really wasn’t my point. My point was the obvious hypocrisy of Hemant and others here.

    • Paul_Robertson

      This isn’t about expressing beliefs, it’s about forcing those beliefs on others. They’re being dicks because they’re trying to turn what should be a celebration of the entire class into something divisive and exclusionary. There’s nothing hypocritical about celebrating inclusive constitutional advocacy but condemning divisive advocacy. Especially when, as in the current case, that advocacy consists of encouraging schools to use legal loopholes to circumvent the intent of the constitution.

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    I’m not sure there’s case law to explicitly support the claim that “The student body can elect a class chaplain or elect a class representative for the specific purpose of prayer”. Similarly, I’m not sure the “A parent and/or student committee can create and conduct part of the ceremony and, therefore, avoid state involvement” defense has been tested in court. Further, while “Part of the school program can be given over to the students and therefore be student-led and student-initiated”, introducing prayer by majoritarian means would seem likely to run afoul of the proscriptions from Santa Fe v Doe.

    I’m not a lawyer, but I’m deeply skeptical on the degree of soundness of this legal advice from Liberty Counsel.

    (The “free speech policy” suggestion looks like it might be legal, but impractically time consuming at schools of any size if they tried to allow everyone to speak.)

    • allein

      “Part of the school program can be given over to the students and therefore be student-led and student-initiated”

      I don’t see how this is any different than “student-led” prayer over the loudspeakers at football games. The school is still giving them the platform.

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

        Correct. Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe takes care of all of this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Timothy-R-Alexander/1850774621 Timothy R Alexander

    “I sent them an email asking for clarification on their website about those examples and I’ll post an update if I hear back.”

    I wouldnt hold your breath

  • Zoe

    Can’t someone sign up and pray to his Noodly Greatness?


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