After Atheists Stop Graduation Prayer at Lincoln County High School, Misinformation is Everywhere

Earlier this month, I wrote about a group of students at Lincoln County High School (in Kentucky). They were fed up with the way their administrators let students vote on whether or not to have a graduation prayer, knowing that the majority of students were Christians who want nothing more than to have the school honor their faith in public.

So they spoke to the principal 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.”

The new policy only applied to this year, though, since the principal later said next year’s graduating class would get to decide what they wanted to do. (Or, to paraphrase: The atheists will graduate in a few weeks, and we won’t have to put up with them next year.)

Much like we’re seeing at Muldrow High School, the school board’s response has basically been “We wish we could promote Christianity, but now that people are paying attention, we have to follow the law.”

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!”

I bring this up again now because Ben Kleppinger of The Interior Journal, a local newspaper, has written a follow-up story on the aftermath of the decision.

In short, Christians have no idea what the law is and there’s misinformation everywhere. They think they’re being discriminated against (they’re not), they think they’re not allowed to pray on their own at graduation (not true), and they think majority should always rule (it can’t).

The Senior Class President, a Christian, kind of empathizes with the atheists…:

Senior class President Jonathan Hardwick, a Christian, said he hasn’t decided yet whether he will pray during his speech to classmates. He said he listened to the six students who don’t want prayer and can empathize with their situation.

“I talked to them and most of them said they just didn’t feel like they should listen to a prayer at their graduation to a god they don’t believe in,” he said. “I can understand their viewpoint because if I was in their shoes, I wouldn’t want to listen to a prayer to a god I didn’t believe in. If a Muslim was saying a prayer to their god, I wouldn’t want to sit there and listen to that, so I understand their viewpoint.”

Hardwick misses the point, though. This isn’t about “not liking” something. If a Muslim student were Class President, that student could legally give a shout-out to Allah, whether others liked it or not. The atheists aren’t against the Christian prayer because they “don’t believe” the same thing — they’re against the prayer because it suggests a government/school endorsement of Christianity and religion.

Another student explained that a “spontaneous” prayer might just break out at graduation… which would be both legal and a complete dick move, since no one was stopping them from praying privately and it would just be a slap in the face against their non-Christian classmates:

Junior Shawnna Ingram, a leader in the high school prayer group First Priority, said she does expect to see student-led prayer during the graduation ceremony.

“The senior class is saying that they’re going to pray anyway because it’s not illegal if it’s all student-led,” she said. “From my knowledge, we’re still going to have prayer, it’s just not going to be on the agenda.”

But, again, that would be legal.

One of the ways the principal countered the misinformation was by making a video explaining right from wrong:

The video almost comes across as a joke. Because while most of us understand how the First Amendment works, it’s obvious that Christians in the community don’t. It’s like watching a parent talk to a two-year-old, basically saying, “Guess what? Other students have rights, too.”

To his credit, Principal Godbey does a nice job of laying out what is and is not allowed, even adding that he prays privately but he wouldn’t do so on the intercom.

I hope the atheists students who led this charge, including Bradley Chester, let the underclassmen know exactly how to lodge their own complaints in the future. Prayer shouldn’t be reinstated at future ceremonies just because the vocal atheists graduated. The school assumed the prayer decision was unanimous… until the atheists spoke up. Even if they didn’t say anything, it would have been a false assumption.

We can’t assume the school’s going to do the right thing in the future when all signs point to them not praying only because the atheists said something. They’re not permanently changing any of their policies. They’re just hoping people stop monitoring what they’re doing next year.

Students at that school — including Christian ones — need to make sure graduation is always a ceremony for everyone, not just those in the religious majority.

(Thanks to Tony 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.

  • Mario Strada

    That’s why founding a secular student club should be the job of every secular minded student in schools around the country. You may win your battle, but end up losing the war unless the point is driven home over and over until they stop breaking the law. I think it’s a mistake to raise the issue just at graduation. A secular club should be able to drive the discussion about what is and isn’t legal all year around. Only then we will start to see some progress.

    I have no doubt that the “militant Christians” will pray during the graduation. A legal but very dickish move as noted in the article. If I were one of the secular students, I’d do my best year around to try to find a student of a different religion willing to work with me and return the favor in kind. I think only real life examples of their own medicine will finally convince them that the 50′s are over and they don’t get to impose their religion on everyone else.

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

    First Priority

    great name for a prayer group. not helping the homeless group, not clothing the poor or helping the sick. prayer. in a club, that probably has fliers and ads and takes up a lot of space all over the school grounds.

    tells me what their priorities are. too bad acting like christians isn’t one of them.

    • GCT

      too bad acting like christians isn’t one of them.

      They seem to be acting very much like Xians.

    • KyukiYoshida

      What’s funny is they are allowed to have a religious school group, but how much do you want to bet that students there aren’t allowed to have GSA (gay straight alliance) clubs?

  • E. Cedric

    And again…..the south.

    • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Tanner B James

      /facepalm /ignore

      • E. Cedric

        nothing from nothing Tanner, but two things:

        1) you are not doing a great job on the “ignore” thing.

        2) There are better places for your palm than your face, some of them are even fun…

    • HeathenMike

      The South? You mean the school in Kentucky? I may have missed your point entirely, but last I checked, Kentucky was a Union state, hence not technically in the South. just sayin’

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Tanner B James

    Stories like this make me wonder how we can bring to the theists a message that the establishment clause exists for their protection and not the reverse.

  • Kevin

    I think every atheist graduate should sneak in an air-horn. If other graduates feel compelled to disrupt the graduation with a spontaneous prayer, then they should respond with a little disruption of their own. After all, what’s the difference?

  • Robster

    “First Priority”-cool sounding but ultimately meaningless christian name for a bunch of people that don’t do anything of value and expect a pat on the back for their inaction.

  • Puzzled

    If a Muslim was saying a prayer to their god, I wouldn’t want to
    sit there and listen to that, so I understand their viewpoint.
    It’s interesting to see someone crawling so slowly towards the golden rule. But, really – he would find it offensive for another group to pray, so he understands why people find it offensive for his group to pray – but he wants to anyway? Furthermore, really, a prayer to ‘their’ god? Why do atheists, by and large, understand religion better than the religious, and not make the mistake of thinking that speaking another language gives you another god?

  • Minou

    Hi, y’all. Just a little different perspective to share, here.

    I understand not wanting to endure a prayer to a god you don’t believe in. Our church offers a special Sunday at graduation time where we pray over our kids–for those who want to come up and participate, at least. I am sad to read the comments of those who feel that rather than praying, Christians should be addressing social issues. There’s a lot of misunderstanding in the world AND in the Church about that.

    To me, they’re inseparable; prayer is first priority. Now, obviously, I’m both Southern and Christian–sorry–but I pray to be a blessing, to be sensitive to and help supply others’ needs. Then I do as I’m led, guided by Ephesians 6:10 (do good at every opportunity). To me, good deeds without that leading–not done in Christ’s name, in other words–are hollow. To do good to get props, to feel better about myself, to make some political or social point, to do ANYTHING other than to be who Jesus called me to be in the world (a people lover) leaves me wondering “What’s the point?!”

    I love being Jesus’ hands and feet, letting others–non-Christians too!–see Christ through my life. I’m sorry that’s not your experience of Christians. (TBH, it’s sometimes not my experience of Christians, either!) I hope you meet some mature, spirit-minded Jesus lovers sometime soon! (And I’ll be praying–in private- for that!)

    • GCT

      I am sad to read the comments of those who feel that rather than praying, Christians should be addressing social issues. There’s a lot of misunderstanding in the world AND in the Church about that.

      I feel a no true Scotsman argument coming on. Prayer has no effect, and it takes you away from actually doing something to address social issues. This is especially true when Xians seem to be the ones doing the most harm when it comes to equality issues.

      To me, good deeds without that leading–not done in Christ’s name, in other words–are hollow.

      This makes no sense. If I do a good deed, it’s because I’m doing it for a good end that isn’t selfish. If you do a good deed, you’re doing it for selfish ends in order to proselytize and earn brownie points for heaven. Yet, my act is hollow and your act is remarkable? You’ve got it backwards. Those who do good deeds because they are told to do so by some deity are not more moral. It’s actually more moral for us to do good deeds because we simply choose to do so of our own volition.

      • Charles Honeycutt

        I’m inclined to think that theists and atheists help others for the same reasons, and are more or less equally moral in them; they’re just misled as to what those reasons are.

        • Minou

          Perhaps in your life prayer has no effect. While I cannot explain it adequately by any yardstick you’d accept, it has a profound affect in mine. I could tell you some cool stories about asking to be used for someone else’s good and having crazy opportunities to do just that lay out in front of me like a red carpet. :)

          Again, while I understand that many Christians do, I’m not one to any good deed is earning me ANYTHING anywhere–here or there, now or then. It’s a lifestyle of obedience and sensitivity to others, of pouring out the love and acceptance and grace that have been poured into me. It works a lot better than the other way; I’m sure we can agree on that!

          I’m sorry I said “hollow;” I can see how you might take that as a slap at any other reasons to do good. I was only talking about for myself. If I do something for other reasons, it feels hollow TO ME. I hope that’s better. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.

          • Minou

            GCT, I’m not trying to be moral, but if there were only two choices, I agree it’s a better choice than the converse. Remember that my choice to do good deeds is still my own volition. I have a choice to walk on by, believer or not. I have no hope of gain from it, but there is a tremendous sense of joy in participating in behaviors consistent with my beliefs, and that’s something else we can probably agree on. You do good because you believe it to be the right thing to do for reasons of your own, right?

            Unfortunately, we’ll have to disagree on the “equality” issues. What I believe to be Truth spells out something quite different. It’s consistent for me to say that what the Bible says is true AND be loving toward any and all.

    • Charles Honeycutt

      To do good to get props, to feel better about myself, to make some
      political or social point, to do ANYTHING other than to be who Jesus
      called me to be in the world (a people lover) leaves me wondering
      “What’s the point?!”

      We usually go with one of these two:

      Empathy: @96% of humans naturally feel emotional pain when they witness suffering (barring conditioning), and feel sympathetic relief when they help alleviate it. We can imagine ourselves in distress, and that lets us imagine how others in distress are hurting.

      Communal Self-Interest: One can’t expect help if one isn’t willing to give it. Everyone prospers more when the general level of wellness is raised.

      I’m sorry, but everyone helps others for selfish reasons, the most basic and universal of which is to feel better for having done so. It doesn’t have to be the ONLY reason, but it doesn’t cease to exist no matter what you may think about it.

    • Minou

      Thank you each for your thoughtful and gently phrased replies.

      To Charles, empathy IS part of the Christian belief system (that “do unto others” thing), and communal self-interest I guess is God-wired (you would say hard-wired) into us, so I think we agree there. You lose me a bit on the “selfish” part, because doing for others selflessly, with no hope or desire of gain seems right to me. I don’t believe I’m promised a fluffier pillow in the afterlife by doing good. I’m told that I’m to do it at every opportunity, so I do. And when I sometimes get thank-you notes or calls I honestly cannot remember what they’re talking about. It’s just as much a part of what I do as breathing. I don’t remember the 12th breath of last Tuesday, either! ;)’

      I don’t think I’m the only Christian who feels this way and lives this way, either. But I think we might be outnumbered a bit. :(

  • LoudGuitr

    Don’t pray in my school, and I won’t think in your church.

  • KyukiYoshida

    If the school wouldn’t allow a prayer to another deity or even satan, they shouldn’t allow a prayer to the christian god.

  • Sarah

    This is a ridiculous piece, filled with conjecture. If someone started explaining to other people what you are thinking in your head, based on long held stereotypes of atheists, you’d be offended.
    Be fair, dude. Don’t deal in stereotypes. Don’t assume you know what someone thinks or feels, stick to facts.


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