The Freedom from Religion Foundation, a secular advocacy group from Madison, in the U.S. state of Wisconsin, is challenging one public school’s practice of holding prayers at kindergarten graduation ceremonies. The group argues that the practice is unconstitutional because it mixes the functions of state and religion. The case is just one of many that illustrate the growing divide between religion and secularism in an increasingly religious and conservative United States.
The school where the prayers are being held is Pulaski Elementary in Pulaski, a small town located in Giles County in the rural U.S. state of Tennessee. For several years, the school has invited local pastors to hold prayers, communion, and devotion at kindergarten graduation ceremonies. This year, principal Bill Holt invited Robert Hatfield, a minister at East Hill Church of Christ in Pulaski, to hold the prayer sessions. After receiving complaints from several parents that the prayer recited by Hatfield explicitly invoked the name of Jesus Christ, the Foundation sent a letter to Giles County Director of Schools Tee Jackson requesting an end to the prayers, citing the unconstitutional nature of the practice.
Holt did not show support for the concerned parents, or for the legal arguments provided by the Foundation. In response to the complaints, he basically argued that the prayers were harmless and did not impose religion on anybody: according to Chris Graham of Columbia, Tennessee’s The Daily Herald, Holt said, “[i]t saddens me that America has come to this point that you can’t have a little kindergarten program and say a prayer”, insisting that the school is “not trying to push religion on anybody”. He added that in years past, ministers of different denominations have prayed at the event, suggesting that sufficient pluralism is present to avoid any sort of religious favoritism on the school’s part.
Hatfield, too, tried to justify the prayers, arguing that no proselytizing was intended. “I just showed up and did what I was asked to do”, he said, adding, “I tried to make it personal for the occasion” and that there “was no religious indoctrination”. By reciting the prayer, Hatfield maintained, he was just doing his job and had no religious agenda in mind—despite explicitly reciting the worlds “in Jesus’s name”.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation, an association of agnostics, atheists, and other religious skeptics, has not been so sympathetic to this type of argument, and has routinely responded by citing several reasons why prayer in public schools is inappropriate.
The Foundation cited the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars Congress from making any law respecting an establishment of religion. Responding to arguments that this law does not prohibit school prayers, since it does not constitute a law respecting an establishment of religion, the Foundation has pointed out a tradition of U.S. Supreme Court rulings which have interpreted the law to mean that the government will in no way endorse one religion over another. In its letter to Jackson, the Foundation stated, “[t]he Supreme Court has settled this matter—public school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students”. In support of this argument, the Foundation cited the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court case Lee v. Weisman, in which the court ruled 5-4 that prayer at public school graduation ceremonies violates the Establishment Clause.
In addition to citing the First Amendment and Supreme Court rulings, the Foundation argued that the prayers at Pulaski Elementary are particularly inappropriate since they are recited to young, impressionable children who cannot gauge the school’s intent. In their letter, the organization states that the “fact that this prayer was delivered at a kindergarten graduation is even more egregious”, pointing out that the “graduating kindergarten children, as young as five” who, earlier that same academic year, had “been taught prayer by their teachers and are again subjected to religious ritual”, i.e. the school graduation prayer, “cannot possibly…discern that the school district does not endorse the religious messages embodied in the graduation prayers”. In other words, the Foundation suggests, it is inadequate to argue that the school is not endorsing the prayers, since young children cannot distinguish between religious endorsement, and mere religious expression.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation has a strong, reasonable, well-supported argument. The U.S. Supreme Court has traditionally interpreted the First Amendment to mean that government shall not endorse religion, and it is unreasonable to expect five year-old children to understand that schools are not endorsing the prayers that they are holding. Even at high school graduation ceremonies, it is reasonable to infer that if the school is holding a prayer session, the school is endorsing the message conveyed in that prayer. Why else would they allow it? Thus, even when students are old enough to discern the school’s intent, they still experience pressure to conform to religious beliefs they may disagree with. So it seems slightly naïve and disingenuous for Principal Holt to argue that the school is not pushing religion on anybody.
The whole prayer in public schools debate will not be going away any time soon, and we are bound to hear more stories—usually coming out of rural, southern U.S. states with high Southern Baptist populations—about public schools insinuating religious beliefs into school activities and then turning around and saying that the students are not expected to value or share those beliefs. At the end of the day, this is hard to believe, because it seems pointless for a school to accommodate an ideology that it does not expect its students to follow. Why is all of this happening? One explanation is that, relatively speaking, the United States has clung to traditional values while the rest of the industrialized world has embraced rationalist ones. Of course, as always, there is another side to the argument, so we kindly invite you to tell us whether you think it is a good idea for public schools to hold prayers at kindergarten graduation ceremonies—or any public school graduation ceremony, for that matter.