National Catholic Register


The Prayer Rebellion

BY The Editors

June 22-28, 2008 Issue | Posted 6/17/08 at 11:55 AM


For the past several years, a quiet rebellion has taken place at graduation ceremonies. Students have been voicing prayers against the wishes of the school. The rebellion was dealt a harsh blow in the year 2000, when a pre-Roberts and Alito Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional for students to pray in public. But even that didn’t stop it.

Students (and teachers) are still praying — and still drawing the ire of those who desperately want them to stop.

In New Orleans, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. says he will side with the American Civil Liberties Union in its lawsuit over a teacher’s prayer during a public high school’s graduation ceremony.

The ACLU sued the Tangipahoa Parish School Board on behalf of a family over a May 2007 graduation ceremony at the PM High School in Hammond. The ACLU says the family members’ constitutional rights were violated when a teacher had the gall to speak to God out loud during the ceremony.

The ACLU of Louisiana has kept a watchful eye on this particular school board since the 1990s: This is the seventh suit pitting it against the board over prayer.

The Othello [Wash.] Outlook reported that angry parents who want prayer at their high school graduation have begun speaking up when their children are still in elementary school.

Kent Russell told the newspaper: “On behalf of many people, including students, we are very alarmed that prayer has been banned at graduation. We are here for the kids because they want it.”

In response, the paper quoted Othello High School Principal Matt Stevens distilling the strange logic behind the banning of student-led prayer. “If we condone this and don’t discipline those who” pray, he said, “we are opening the school up for hate meetings.”

From New Jersey comes a story that is different in kind, and so can put the whole issue in perspective.

A Muslim student sued the state’s largest school district because his public high school graduation ceremony was held in a Baptist church. Bilal Shareef said he had to skip his 2006 graduation from West Side High School because his religious beliefs prohibit him from entering buildings containing icons of God.

Once again, the American Civil Liberties Union brought this lawsuit.

Newark Public Schools apologized to Shareef and his father and agreed to change its policies under terms of the settlement, announced June 9.

The case shows that there is an important grain of truth in the arguments of those who oppose prayer at school.

As the Catechism puts it: “Nobody may be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others, within due limits” (No. 2106).

But surely, there is a lot of room between holding a graduation in a Baptist church, on the one hand, and strictly banning any mention of God’s name, even by students, on the other.

While we’re quoting the Catechism, it’s instructive to read what it says religious liberty isn’t — and what it is: “The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities” (No. 2108).

In other words, the state should not force you to say you are grateful to God, at your graduation or elsewhere. And it shouldn’t prevent you from expressing your gratitude for God at your graduation or elsewhere.

Yet it has done exactly that. In the early 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued decrees against school-sponsored prayers and Bible readings. In 1992, the Supreme Court expanded the prohibition to graduations. In 2000, it decided every student speaker was an agent of the state who could not pray.

It’s important to note that nowhere in Catholic teaching or in the U.S. Constitution does it say that we have a right to not feel uncomfortable about someone else’s religion.

The new sensibility about religion tacitly assumes that we do have that right. But it is a function of tyranny, not democracy, to decide that one particular mindset is the right one and that everyone should be forced to conform to it.

Call it the tyranny of secular respectability. In the Western world, talking of God or to God in public is very much like an obscenity. People who hear it feel either embarrassed for the speaker or feel offended by the speaker.

This is perhaps what the prayer rebellion at graduation is all about.

After years of being forced to treat their Creator, Savior and best friend as if he didn’t exist, students, usually the valedictorians, see the graduation ceremony as a last chance to express their true feelings. They’ve already earned their diploma. They have the whole school there. They can say a few words (usually a very few words) about God, and it’s too late for the school to do anything about it.

The prayer rebellion itself can inspire hope: Among our youth are some courageous people who stand up for God. But we have an even greater reason to hope.

That God they are praying to has a history of answering our prayers, powerfully.