Brave Atheist Students Stop ‘Student-Led’ Graduation Prayers at Kentucky High School

Lincoln County High School in Kentucky is one of those schools where administrators, knowing that the majority of students are Christian, let students vote on whether or not they want a prayer during their graduation ceremony. Guess what? They usually want one.

This year, though, six students decided they didn’t want to put up with it, so they spoke to their principal about the potential constitutional violation at hand and got the policy changed:

Bradley Chester, a graduating senior, is an atheist and one of the students who approached [Principal Tim] Godbey about not having prayer at graduation.

“I feel like you shouldn’t force your religion upon anybody,” Chester said in an interview with WKYT in Lexington. “And a lot of people are saying if there are prayers at graduation, you don’t have to participate, you can sit there and not listen, close your ears. Well, one, it’s my graduation. I shouldn’t have to close my ears.

This is a place for school, not a church. I feel like I’m graduating from Lincoln County High, not Lincoln County Church.

I call these students brave because, in a predominantly Christian area, they’re stll willing to put themselves on the line and risk becoming social pariahs for the sake of doing the right thing.

That doesn’t mean that other students can’t pray on their own, obviously, and it won’t stop other speakers from mentioning God in a speech, as the Class President noted:

Jonathan Hardwick, president of the class of 2013 who will speak at graduation, told WKYT “the school can’t stop me” if he wants to pray during the commencement ceremony.

There’s a Class President for you, one who cares to represent only the Christian students.

The school board and administration are, to their credit, not fighting the atheists… though they’re not exactly supporting them either. Their response is mostly: We wish we didn’t have to follow the law, but you know, those damn atheists…:

Board of Education member Theresa Long acknowledged in a Facebook post that she has fielded many phone calls and emails about the issue.

“I am here to set the story straight about this situation,” Long wrote. “There is a law mandated by the federal government that we cannot pray or force prayer on anyone! The students have voted each year, and this year there happened to be students voting against prayer during graduation. It is not LCHS, it is not the board, it is a law! Yes, this saddens me. I also understand that with freedom of speech, prayer could be incorporated by that speaker!”

Long is sad because she isn’t able to foist her religion on the entire audience, because that’s really the purpose of a graduation ceremony…

Part of the reason the school may not be putting up a fight is because this “not praying” thing will only happen this year. If they have their way, “student-led” prayer will return after these rabble-rousers graduate:

The principal said officials have not pondered what to do at future graduation ceremonies, as it would be up to the Class of 2014 and subsequent graduating classes.

This shouldn’t be put to popular vote. The school board knows damn well that the students will vote to pray to Jesus every year — so their hands are hardly clean. The formal part of the ceremony should be secular, this year and every year.

(Thanks to Melody for the link)

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.

  • Hailey

    I wish Bradley Chester all the best. From his bravery here, it looks like he’ll have a bright future. And shame on that class president for putting his sectarian belief over representation of all students.

  • Melody Hollis

    Thanks, Hemant! It amazes me how many people think that “no prayer” is the same as letting the Atheists trample religious freedom. In reality, it is a neutral position. We aren’t asking them to sit and plug their ears while we discuss all the wonderful things Atheism has done in our lives. I also love the contradiction of Christians saying they’re persecuted because they can’t use their majority rule to force everyone else to comply to their wishes.

  • busterggi

    Democracy =/= mob rule, except for Christians.

  • SJH

    So they keep other students from getting what they want as if their wants trump those of the other students. Sounds selfish to me. Looking at the constitutionality of something is an important issue however what about looking at this through the lens of basic courtesy. If I were in a predominantly Muslim area, I would force everyone to recite Christian prayers or force them to stop, even if it were my constitutional right. Certainly there is a slippery slope here. At what point to you confront an issue and fight for what you think the constitution states? I don’t think a high school graduation prayer is far enough down the slippery slope for that.

  • Patrick Dunn

    Selfish? Really? Like a male boss telling his female employee, “Hey, I didn’t sexually harass you today, that’s something you want, now what are you going to do for me?”

  • RobMcCune

    Only if the mob rules the right way.

  • Kengi

    Selfish is forcing a Christian ceremony on everyone. Asking that a secular, government run ceremony be neutral on religion is not selfish.

  • Wild Rumpus

    It is not the wants of one group of students trumping the wants of another group. It is treating all students equally. It is not selfish, it is the law and it is a good law because it values each individual instead of giving certain groups special rights.

    What IS selfish is one group thinking they get special rights to promote their beliefs over all others. You have a quaint tradition in the USA where you can promote your religion or be racist or misogynist or anti-science or whatever you want and that’s called going to CHURCH.

    A high school graduation prayer is absolutely the start of a slippery slope. There is immense peer pressure and cliquishness in high school. A high school graduation is supposed to be for all students, not just special students. By saying it’s OK to force your religion on other people in this setting means you are saying proselytizing to a captive audience is OK, you are saying that ignoring the beliefs of others is OK, you are saying that in your society, only your belief system is right.

    So here’s the promise, I won’t promote the equality and inherent worth of each individual in your Church, if you will keep your supernatural beliefs and critical judgements out of our Schools.

  • Edmond

    If there are students there who want to pray, THEY CAN PRAY! No one is stopping them. Doesn’t praying work if you do it in your head, or quietly to yourself? What they DON’T need to do is get up in front of the entire student body and tell them ALL to bow their heads, or chant along, or even pay respect with silence while the Christians perform their rituals as publicly as possible. As the opposing students have said, they are graduating from a school, not a church. None of the faculty and none of the students have been appointed as spiritual leaders of anyone else, and they shouldn’t ACT like it.

  • Tweekus

    I was talking to a fellow the other day who started talking about how the christians were being persecuted by the atheists. I asked him how. Long story short he talked about how prayer was being taken out of schools, dot et cetera. After thirty minutes and a bag of chips and a couple sodas, the dude said this: “Well damn. I’ll try not to debate you again.” The main weapon of the religious in general is misinformation.

  • RobertoTheChi

    It’s selfish to follow the law? No, what’s selfish is cramming your religion on everyone especially when it’s not legal to do so in a public institution. I think you understand, but you just don’t care. Christian privilege at it’s finest…

  • Melody Hollis

    I agree. I’m astounded at how many people don’t know the first thing about church/state separation, but that is what happens when you never hear or even consider dissenting opinions. Christians are so often insulated from outside opinions that they have no hesitation in believing that non-Christians really are out to persecute them and take their freedoms.

    I, for one, grew up in a Christian family and attended Christian school and was thoroughly indoctrinated in believing that we were the victims. Luckily, I was so often put off by the behavior of other Christians that I no longer wanted to associate myself with them. The religious, in general, behave badly enough to drive their own believers away. As if we need to persecute them to somehow make it harder for them to be Christian? Nope. They’re doing a fine job on their own.

  • DavidMHart

    So they keep other students from getting what they want as if their wants trump those of the other students

    Good try, but no. They keep the other students from getting what they want because their constitutional rights trump the wants of the other students.

    Every student has the right to pray or not to pray. No student has the right to prevent others from praying, or compel others to join in with praying. And no public school has the right to lead prayers, because the constitution forbids the government and its employees from endorsing one religion over another, or endorsing religion over non-religion while acting in their public capacity as a government employee. This has truckloads of legal precedent behind it.

    For what it’s worth, the constitution also prohibits schools from endorsing non-religion over religion – the first amendment protects you too, and if your religion ever finds itself in the minority, you’ll be glad it’s there. People that belong to religions that already are in the minority tend to have the sense to be grateful for it.

  • wmdkitty

    Matthew 6:5-7

    5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

  • Michael Harrison

    As the saying goes, democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.

  • Benny Cemoli

    However, those laws do not stop students from
    praying out loud on school grounds, the principal noted.

    I also understand that with freedom of speech, prayer could be
    incorporated by that speaker! –Board of Education member Theresa Long

    the school can’t stop me –Johnathan Hardwick

    And do you really think that there isn’t going to be a Christian prayer at the Lincoln County High School graduation this year? Everyone might just be a little bit disappointed in the graduation ceremony if they think that. And how could you possibly have the FFRF sue when it was a student’s “spontaneous” prayer that the administration didn’t realize was taking place until it was over.



  • allein

    “At what point to you confront an issue and fight for what you think the constitution states?”

    At the point that it violates the constitution?

  • chicago dyke

    i almost wish i were in HS again. i’d demand to lead a prayer to Marduk. with human sacrifice.