RUSSELL SPRINGS, Ky. (BP)–About 200 seniors at a high school graduation in Kentucky stood to recite the Lord’s Prayer May 19 in response to a federal judge banning prayer at the ceremony after an ACLU-affiliated lawsuit.
School officials said voluntary prayer had been a part of graduations at Russell County High School in Russell Springs 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.
“My high school graduation is a very important event for me and I want to attend my graduation without having to compromise my Constitutional rights,” the student said in an affidavit. He chose to be identified only as John Doe because he said he feared retaliation.
U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinney granted a temporary restraining order about 12 hours before the start of graduation, ordering school officials and a peer-elected student not to proceed with a scheduled prayer in the ceremony.
But during the principal’s opening remarks, students stood and said the Lord’s Prayer in unison, drawing a standing ovation of support from the crowd of 2,000 people, according to the Associated Press.
The “revival like atmosphere” continued, AP said, when senior Megan Chapman, chosen by her classmates to deliver remarks, mentioned her faith — particularly that she believed God had guided her since childhood. She was interrupted repeatedly by the cheering crowd as she admonished graduates to trust in God.
“So, when you get out in the world and things get hard and you don’t feel like you’re going to pass that final next week in college, or you’re not going to be able to pay that next bill, God’s going to help you through that with your faith in Him,” Chapman said, according to AP.
Christian roots run deep in the Russell Springs community, a local minister told the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper. With more than 100 churches in the rural county, religion is an issue of great importance, he said, adding that it’s a shame a minority view could override the majority in regard to graduation prayers there.
Russell County School Superintendent Scott Pierce told AP he was pleased with the response from the senior class at graduation because it showed they’ve learned to be “critical thinkers.”
“They exhibited what we’ve tried to accomplish in 12 years of education — they have the ability to make these compelling decisions on their own,” he said.
Liberty Counsel now represents Chapman as part of its “Friend or Foe Graduation Prayer Campaign” and will ask the court to vacate its ruling, which the conservative legal group called “invalid, wrong and limited.”
“Students have the right to include religious viewpoints during their graduation speeches,” Anita L. Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, said in a statement May 22. “It is inappropriate for a school to censor religious viewpoints from a student’s personal graduation message. Our country was founded upon prayer. Our currency acknowledges God. Our legislatures begin each session with prayer. Our students have the right to voluntarily pray during graduation. It is insensitive and unconstitutional to silence student-initiated, voluntary prayer.”
The other side also invoked the intentions of the nation’s founding fathers — in defense of their case.
“This case is not about whether people can pray,” ACLU lawyer Lili Lutgens told The Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville. “It’s about families and individuals deciding for themselves whether, when and how to pray. Our founders intended that these sorts of religious decisions be made by individuals and families, not government.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule specifically on student-led prayers at graduations, though it banned clergy-led prayers at graduations in 1992 and banned student-led prayers at high school football games in 2000.
The district judge in the Kentucky case said he would provide reasons for his three-sentence ruling at a later date. Both sides have expressed interest in securing a precedent for future cases.