High School Graduation: Attack of the Fundies - Public Prayer During Ceremony

I posted this yesterday on my Facebook page**; however I decided to post it here as well, in its entirety. I suspect that there are fellow atheists who find this to be an especially frustrating time because of the continuing fight over sanctioned prayer at high school graduations. At a minimum you may find yourself irritated and disgusted with this whole, ongoing, mess - such as the story of the Valedictorian in Pickens County, SC.

Or your frustration may be more intense because you have xian friends/relatives/acquaintances that know you're an atheist, and they suddenly feel compelled to ask you - and often repeatedly - what you think of that young man's actions. And it's not just the asking - what makes it really irritating is that, quite often, the xians confronting you tend to do so with a smug look of righteous indignation. If so, then hopefully some of the info I have included here will help you coalesce your thoughts into a compelling response.

** I have made some small tweaks to this since I originally posted it on FB - all of them around formatting and grammar.


NOTE: Those who know me know that I am an "out of the closet" Atheist, a Humanist, and a Unitarian Universalist. I am not like the preconceived notions many have when they hear the word "atheist". I respect other people's beliefs, and will vigorously defend the rights of anyone to believe as their conscience and heart demands, without fear of persecution for those beliefs. However, my vigorous support ends when people try to impose their beliefs and dogmas upon others - especially when the form of imposition being attempted is through laws or through the government in general.  

The Separation of Church and State is, and should always be, sacrosanct. 

So, with that little background info out of the way, let's move on to the topic of this post, shall we?


It's that time of year again - high school graduation. It's a joyous time for everyone - teachers, administrators, and most of all parents and students. Students are excited about closing this chapter and opening a new one in their lives, and parents are relieved that they made it through 12 years of school without killing them ;)

But all is not well in this picture. 

A common tradition at many high schools, especially rural ones and/or Southern ones, is to have a moment where people are commanded, "everyone bow their heads to pray", and the person at the podium leads everyone in a prayer; quite often it is the Lord's Prayer. If you're a Christian, this may seem like a nice tradition, and quite normal; if, however you're not a Christian - and you don't have to be an atheist, you could be a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or any number of other NON-Christian religions - you feel, at the least, a bit awkward, and at the most extremely uncomfortable, isolated, and maybe even offended. The problem is that if you ARE a non-Christian, you almost certainly will keep your feelings of isolation to yourself. Why? Because in many (most?) circumstances you will be a pariah, persecuted, and forever branded as "other". I know, I have been there. Don't believe me? There is ample evidence to back me up, even quite recently. Here are a few examples:

  • Jennifer Ahlquist: She complained to the school board that a prayer banner hanging in the school was a violation of the Separation of Church and State (she's right). The issue was taken to court, and she was proven right. She has received NUMEROUS death threats from supposed "Christians", including this one. Incidentally, I am friends with many, many authentic Christians who are as offended and appalled at this as I am. They also agree with the importance of maintaining and vigorously defending the Separation of Church and State. (2012)
  •  Nicole Smalkowski: At 13 her family moved to an 80-acre ranch in rural Oklahoma. Nicole was a great athlete, even played on the football team. During basketball season the team gathered after the games to recite the Lord's Prayer. She complained, was ostracized, and was even attacked publicly by town officials. Story here, video here. (2007)
  • Bastrop High School: Damon Fowler, an atheist and graduating senior at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, complained about the prayers scheduled to be part of his commencement ceremony. After consulting with an attorney, the school agreed to drop the prayer. Unfortunately, Damon has since been ostracized by the community and even attacked by a school official (name: Mitzi Quinn) in the local newspaper. His parents also kicked him out of his home. Yes, his own parents. (2011)

These are but a few of the more public stories, and trust me there are many; what's scary is how many others are unreported? And let's not even talk about the countless thousands who sit and suffer in silence because they don't want to experience the, ahem, "Christian Love" displayed in these other stories.

I have three problems with this:

  1. This is a CLEAR violation of the Separation of Church and State. This has been proven many, many times in court - including all three stories mentioned above.
  2. Children should NOT have to be made to feel uncomfortable at one of the most important days of their lives, their high school graduation.
  3. As a Christian, you have infinite time to pray - before the ceremony, after, even during (to yourself). You can even get together in big groups and do it publicly. But doing it as an OFFICIAL, public part of the ceremony is wrong - and unnecessary. Incidentally, I do not know of a SINGLE non-Christian who has a problem with a Moment of Silence; this should suffice and would be acceptable to everyone, for the aforementioned reasons.

I have one other observation. During my childhood I was raised in a Southern Baptist tradition. I even attended a private christian school for over two years. Even after I admitted to myself that I was an atheist I continued my study of Christianity - the history of that branch of the Abrahamic Faiths, the various espoused tenets, etc., and the Bible itself. With this background I was pretty sure that not only is public prayer sanctioned by a public school illegal, it is also against the instructions given to Christians, concerning prayer, in the Bible. It only took a little bit of digging to find what I thought I remembered: demanding a public demonstration of prayer is BLATANTLY HYPOCRITICAL.

The prayer that is most often recited publicly is Matthew 6:9-16 (NIV), otherwise known as the Lord's Prayer. What is so sad (unfortunately, it's almost comical) is that hardly any Christians - especially the ones who DEMAND a public prayer - know anything about the Bible other than what they are told. Take, for instance, the verses directly preceding the Lord's Prayer. Have you actually read the Lord's Prayer, in context, in the Bible? For those who aren't familiar with it, I give you Matthew 6:5-8 (NIV):

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. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

 **Emphasis mine. --Rocky

So, if you are a Christian, I hope you will give this some thought - especially the verses before the Lord's Prayer - reconsider your stance on "sanctioned" Public Prayer at any public school-sponsored event.

I've tried to give you different perspectives and many reasons to think about. I'm hoping that you will try to put yourself in the shoes of the multitude of others who, like the people presented here, are made to feel like an outsider in their own communities, and even in their own families and friends.

But if, after careful consideration, all of the other reasons fall on deaf ears, then I beseech you to listen to your God, who has clearly told you to not do it.


Inspiration and information for this post came from ThinkAtheist.com, the best social networking site for freethinkers, and from this video by DarkMatter2525.


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