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Student: Seniors united to acknowledge God at graduation

RUSSELL SPRINGS, Ky. (BP)–The senior chosen by her classmates to pray at a graduation ceremony said she was not surprised when one student filed a lawsuit that led to a judge telling her she could not lead the graduates in prayer.

Megan Chapman, now a graduate of Russell County High School in Russell Springs, Ky., told Baptist Press the student, who considers himself an atheist, had raised similar objections in the past, such as when the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes distributed fliers that included Bible verses.

“When I was told that I couldn’t say the prayer, I never really got frustrated because we’re in the world and not everything is going to go a Christian’s way,” Chapman said. “So I was not surprised that there were problems with this, although our school is in a Christian community.”

Voluntary prayer had been a part of graduations at the school for decades without a complaint until May 16 when an anonymous graduating senior collaborated with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky to file a lawsuit claiming he was offended by graduation prayers.

Just 12 hours before the ceremony May 19, U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinney ordered Chapman and school officials not to proceed with a scheduled prayer in the ceremony.

Chapman said the senior class decided they wanted prayer to be a part of their farewell to the school, so she and her twin sister, Mandy, helped pass out small cards with the Lord’s Prayer printed on them so that anyone who wanted to participate in reciting it would know the words. Then they designated a student on the front row to signal the start of the prayer.

“They all believed in God and wanted God in their graduation, and they didn’t want one student to make all that go away,” Chapman said.

When the principal rose to deliver his opening remarks, about 200 students — nearly the entire graduating class — began to pray aloud on their own volition.

“The most awesome part was when the seniors all came together and stood up to pray,” Chapman said. “I’m not a crying person, but when that happened, I had to cry. That was so unbelievable. It was awesome that so many people came together for God. When it came down to it, they chose God over all when they could have backed down.”

The gymnasium packed with more than 2,000 people erupted in cheers, Chapman recounted.

“I’m really thankful that God got the glory for it,” she said.

Though he chose to remain anonymous in the lawsuit, Derrick Ping spoke with Lexington’s WKYT-TV about his motives May 24, claiming his fellow graduates, school faculty and members of the community would not listen to his views.

Ping told WKYT that people in Russell County have been trying to manipulate his personal beliefs since elementary school when they handed out Bibles, and he said students at the high school teased him for being an atheist and called him names.

“They said I am evil and evil cannot stand in the presence of good,” Ping said.

Because he would not feel comfortable listening to a prayer during graduation, Ping contacted the ACLU and was pleased when the judge took his side. But prayer happened anyway.

“They basically ruined the entire point of what I tried to do, so I guess I feel like I went to a lot of trouble for nothing,” Ping said of the rest of the class.

He called ACLU officials again after graduation to inquire about possible penalties for students reciting the Lord’s Prayer after the judge had ruled against school-sanctioned prayer.

“Jerry Falwell’s organization gave them the idea to stand up in the middle of it and do the Lord’s Prayer,” Ping told WKYT, referring to Liberty Counsel, which is representing Chapman, though Chapman said the idea came from the students. “The principal can claim he didn’t know anything about it, so there are a lot of loopholes there and the ACLU feels they don’t have enough evidence.”

Ping said he is surprised no one in the community has physically harmed him after he filed the lawsuit.

“I expected a few crosses burned in my yard,” he said, adding that he wants people to know that being an atheist doesn’t make him evil. “I don’t think I’m evil. I’m a nice guy. I’m adorable.”

Eric Withers, youth pastor at First Baptist Church in Russell Springs, told BP he didn’t hear a single negative comment from people who attended the graduation ceremony. Russell Springs is a very religious community, he said, and most people were grateful for what the students had done.

“I want to applaud them for standing up for their faith and being willing to stand up for truth when it was under attack,” Withers said. “They’ve done something to protect what they believe in and what is important to them, and I want to encourage them every step of the way.”

Withers said Ping has attended youth events at First Baptist in the past.

“I’ve urged [my students] to bring this young man before the Lord in their prayer time because he’s a nice kid,” Withers said. “I like him. I’ve worked with him in the school system and also in our church. He’s a kid who just needs the Lord, and we need to pray that God would open his eyes more than anything else.”

When Chapman was told she could not pray at the event, she chose instead to talk about Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” and urge students to choose wisely the paths they will take in life. But she said it just didn’t feel right, and she scrapped the speech at the last minute — opting instead to talk about God’s importance in her life.

“She wanted to talk to them about the thing that was most important to her from the time she was 7 years old forward and she talked about how her life was guided by the Word of God,” Withers said. “She told students that when you’re out there in the world and you don’t know what to do, all you have to do is say, ‘Jesus, I need you.’”

Rick Neff, pastor of New Victory Baptist Church in Russell Springs, where Chapman is a member, told BP he is pleased that she chose to use the platform her classmates gave her as a means for proclaiming the Gospel.

“Megan is a wonderful example of a mature young Christian who believes in the Word of God and believes that Christ is not only her Savior but her strength, as she told the graduates,” Neff said. “She is a great example of our up-and-coming young Christians who want to make a stand on God’s Word, and we appreciate her very much.”

Mandy Chapman, Megan’s sister, said the incident at Russell County High School is another example of God working in mysterious ways.

“I think it proves that God can take a situation that looks like it’s anti-Christian and turn it into something that gives Him more glory than if the lawsuit had not been filed,” she said.

Also in Kentucky, the principal of Shelby County High School, just east of Louisville, has said the school will not schedule any formal prayers during its June 2 graduation after receiving a letter from the Kentucky ACLU on behalf of a Muslim student who objects to Christian prayers, according to The Courier-Journal. Traditionally, invocations and benedictions have been given at Shelby County graduations.

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  • Erin Roach