Northern High School in Calvert County, Md., has been known locally for years as a place where prayer was allowed at graduation ceremonies. But that was before Nick Becker became a student there.

Now it is known nationally as a place where students champion their right to pray.

Becker, now 18, was conspicuous at Northern for his independent streak — he once sculpted his hair like the Statue of Liberty's crown and was asked by school officials to wash it out in a sink. He was also conspicuous for his familiarity with the ACLU.

The American Civil Liberties Union first came to Becker's defense when he refused to stand when his class recited the Pledge of Allegiance, The Washington Post reported May 28. The group backed him again this year when he decided that he didn't want anybody to pray at his graduation ceremony.

The school, threatened with a lawsuit, asked graduating senior Julie Schenk to break a 17-year tradition and not deliver an invocation at the ceremony. She struck a compromise: On graduation day, Schenk asked that the audience pause for 30 seconds of silent reflection. The Post describes what happened next:

“It started with a loud, clear voice, a man's voice. And it spread quickly through the hall, picking up the tenors of teenage boys, whispers of young girls and throaty voices of grandmothers. With each word, it grew more determined:

“‘Our Father, who art in Heaven …

’ “The defiant group,” said the report, “insisted that God be part of” the ceremony.

Becker was so upset he left the auditorium where the graduation was taking place. When he tried to re-enter, he was stopped by police. The school had a policy against students leaving and re-entering the auditorium during ceremonies.

That's life in public high schools in the 1990s. Graduation ceremonies ban God but find a compelling need to have police guards on hand. Students, meanwhile, rebel by praying out loud.

America was founded, in large part, by people who wanted to find a place where they could pray in public without harassment by the authorities. They sacrificed a great deal to win those liberties. It's encouraging to see that the students at Northern High aren't giving up those liberties too easily.

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Trade With China

It is worth noting that 10 years after the massacre of freedom lovers in Tiananmen Square, the Clinton administration, with Congress'likely support, announced June 3 that it wants to continue favored status trade relations with the People's Republic of China.

Chinese students built a model of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Confronted by approaching government tanks on June 4, 1989, the young demonstrators shouted for democracy as they waved copies of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured that day.

At his May 29 commencement address to Columbia School of Law at The Catholic University of America, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) recalled his recent visits to China, where he saw fresh incidents of disregard for human rights:

“One Christian woman, with tears in her eyes, told me how her child had been forcibly aborted by crude and rough family-planning cadres as part of the People's Republic of China's one-child-per-couple policy, and that she prayed that her baby was in heaven. … Another told how a public security policeman beat, harassed and robbed Christians.”

Smith continued, “Still another underground Roman Catholic, Bishop Zhimin Su of Baoding Province, China, spent more than a dozen years in prison and endured torture.

During a brief time of release, he said Mass in a dingy apartment for our human rights delegation. … Bishop Su was thrown back into prison by the Chinese dictatorship soon after we left.”

In story after story, the West has heard again and again about the terrible human rights abuses in China. Even those who support normal trade relations status for China admit that these abuses occur. They make a real and strong case that more trade, and with it more contact with the West, can have a profound, democratizing effect on China.

But, in the end, the strongest motive for trading with China is the financial boon of trade with the world's largest market, not the stray moral side-effects that trade may cause. And that financial gain is itself jeopardized by recent developments.

The Chinese government has snubbed Westerners with its arms proliferation, its theft of intellectual property and its violations of human rights, which the U.S. State Department says has worsened in the past year. Such a government can hardly be a reliable trading partner.

Nevertheless, the House Ways and Means Committee was scheduled to hold hearings June 8 on trade with China. Significant opposition to “normal” trade status has been hard to come by in recent years. But the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, along with the recent discoveries of nuclear-weapons espionage by the Chinese, make it prudent to take a hard second look at how the United States will deal with China in the future.