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.


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