Last month, Opp High School in Alabama held a baccalaureate service in addition to a normal graduation ceremony. That by itself isn’t a problem. Baccalaureate services are religious in nature, but as long as they’re privately organized, no one can really stop them. By rule, school officials can’t participate or promote the event.
The high school scheduled a baccalaureate service in its auditorium on May 21 during which the school principal, Aaron Hightower, led seniors in prayer.
That wasn’t all. The (secular) graduation ceremony included both a religious speech from Principal Hightower and a separate pre-approved prayer delivered by a student.
Religious activities were also added into the school’s graduation ceremony. High school administrators scheduled a prayer for the event that was delivered to the audience by a student. Additionally, the speech that Hightower gave included references to God and prayer.
Somehow, the school screwed up both ceremonies — including the one it wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with at all.
“Opp City Schools has a legal duty to remain neutral toward religion. It makes no difference how many students want religious speeches or wouldn’t be offended by them at their graduation,” wrote [attorney Sam] Grover. “A graduation should be a celebration for all students, not an exercise in alienating nonreligious students with a Christian message.” A baccalaureate service, moreover, is an exclusively religious event. The letter points out that it is illegal for public schools to endorse or schedule a baccalaureate service at all.
By scheduling graduation prayers and a baccalaureate, the school district has failed to comply with constitutional law. FFRF advises that it avoid similar legal breaches of the First Amendment going forward. After all, as FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor says, “high school graduations should honor the students, not a religion.”
Some media outlets are misleading readers by claiming FFRF wants to “ban baccalaureate ceremonies.” That’s not what FFRF is saying at all. Baccalaureates aren’t illegal as long as the school has nothing to do with it.
The District hasn’t responded yet, but FFRF is doing them a favor by pointing out how they’re breaking the law. They have a chance to make this right before the situation gets worse.
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