The boundary between freedom of and from religion has found an increasing presence in the U.S. public school system in recent weeks. Recently a judge in Connecticut issued a ruling preventing two local public high schools from holding graduation ceremonies in a church, and now a class president has been barred from reciting a “prayer” poem during a speech at a public high school graduation ceremony. While the local community has voiced misapprehensions over the decision, school administrators, as well as the ACLU Pennsylvania, have cited constitutional protections against religion as a basis for the decision. It may not seem so at first glance, but the case ultimately shows how important it is to defend personal, individual, constitutional freedoms against arbitrary majority rule.
The issue arose when Aaron Mackley, 2010 class president of Eastern High School, proposed a speech which including the poem “A Graduation Prayer”, by Helen Steiner Rice. According to a school board official and a community leader, reports Angie Mason of Pennsylvania’s York Daily Record, Mackley was asked to remove the passage containing the “prayer” poem because of its association with prayer and meditation; however, Doug Caldwell, Eastern York School Board president, points out that the decision was made not by the school board, but by the school district administration on the advice of legal counsel. The administration, he says, based their decision on several court rulings which suggested that allowing Mackley to recite the poem would be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion on the district’s part. Meanwhile, Mackley spoke about the issue with Don Pullen, pastor of Valley View Alliance Church, at a recent school board meeting, presumably with the goal of challenging the decision, while Sara Rose, a lawyer with ACLU Pennsylvania, supported it as lawful.
The matter perfectly illustrates the debate over the right to freedom of speech and religion on one hand, and the right to freedom from religion (and freedom of education) on the other. So, who is right—the school district and the ACLU, or Mackley and Pullen? Pullen’s argument, Mason reports, is that “the issue is not cut and dried and clear”, that there is no particular law banning prayers at public school graduation ceremonies, and that the school should have a policy on prayer in public schools which reflects the beliefs of the community. But there is a general law covering particular cases such as public school prayer—it is called the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which proscribes state endorsement of religion—thus, when a state-run school allows a student to give a religious-themed speech, it subjects its students to a particular religious view, in contravention to its lawfully neutral position on the matter. Furthermore, majority rule on minority-only concerns is tyrannical; this is why we have constitutions. Democracy might be seen as a system in which the individual rules on issues which affect themselves, and not on issues which do not affect themselves. Community enforcement of school prayer is an example of individuals ruling on issues which do not affect themselves. Thus, community enforcement of school prayer is undemocratic. One might argue, “but it does affect them, because if Mackley does not get to give his ‘prayer’ speech, they are deprived of that religious experience. After all, they’re attending the ceremony and listening to the speech as well.” But they are not deprived of religious experience; people of diverse faith groups are allowed to pray at home, in church, and even on park benches, just not in speeches at state-run schools—a good example of designated free-speech zones. Meanwhile, the non-religious retain the right to experience a once-in-a-lifetime state-operated ceremony free of religious themes and dogma. Doesn’t everybody win?
At any rate, it remains to be seen whether Mackley and Pullen take the issue to court. The dicey thing about such cases is that the school district can be sued either for repressing religious views, or for imposing them, and it is easy to sympathize with school administrators trying to navigate such precarious predicaments. At ULC Monastery, where we have tried to organize an interfaith effort to protect both freedom of and from religion and to preserve the separation of church and state, we believe the wisest course of action would be to bar any religious-inspired content from public school graduation ceremonies, because the faithful have the opportunity to exercise their beliefs elsewhere, while the non-religious have no other opportunity to celebrate their academic achievement in a secular environment. (Read our Ecclesiastical Proclamation of Canon Law for a more detailed overview.) As always, we wish to hear what counsel our legally ordained priests and ministers can give on the matter, so feel free to express your thoughts.
York Daily Record