As some 4,000 voices joined together in an impromptu Lord's Prayer at a recent high school graduation ceremony in Maryland, one protesting graduating senior left in a huff, but thousands of residents in Calvert County proclaimed a victory for majority rule.
"This is a democratic society in which the majority rules," said pastor Phil Logan of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Calvert County, some forty miles south of Washington. "While it is important to recognize and uphold the rights of the individual, those rights never should triumph over the rights of the majority. That is, after all, what democracies are all about."
The incident occurred during graduation exercises May 26 at Northern High School in Calvert County after student Julie Schenk, 17, had to change her plans to deliver an invocation at the ceremony. The change was ordered just a few days before the event when classmate Nick Becker, 18, objected and found backing from the American Civil Liberties Union and the state attorney general's office.
Schenk was permitted to call for a "moment of reflection," and seconds after she did, a man stood and loudly began reciting the Lord's Prayer.
Thousands joined in, including the graduating class, school officials, county commissioners, and police. This year's ceremony was the first in the school's history not to include a formal school prayer as part of the program.
Becker last year also was backed by the ACLU after he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and, in another incident, was disciplined for coming to school with a bizarre hair style, which he called "liberty spikes" resembling the Statue of Liberty's crown, the Washington Post reported.
After the Lord's Prayer incident, ACLU of Maryland officials said the people's praise of God was unjust and a strike against the Constitution and the "right of people to express dissent."
Becker was detained by police when he attempted to reenter the hall where the graduation was held after leaving it and was not allowed to go on a school-sponsored grad night cruise. It is against school rules for a student to reenter such events after leaving. According to Calvert and Logan County commissioners, Becker had told other students he would disrupt the ceremony if prayer were included.
"We don't all believe in some imaginary deity who is going to save us," Becker told reporters covering his walkout.
Logan said he and some other local pastors are conflicted about the unplanned prayer.
Both Linda Kelley and David Hale, two Calvert County commissioners in attendance at the ceremony, said their e-mail and phones have been overflowing with responses.
"Positive replies seem to be coming from local folks, negative ones from people not from around here," Kelley said. "People are calling me and telling me I will go to hell for joining in and praying. That strikes me a bit odd, as those saying I'll go to hell don't, by their comments, believe in God or heaven. Yet they admit there is a hell?"
"The response has been intense," agreed Hale. "Being the story was covered by the Washington Post, which is available worldwide on the Internet, and by some of the TV networks and local newscasts, we've been swamped with calls and e-mails. The smoke has not cleared. The fire is not even out yet."
"You would think especially now, in the wake of more school shootings, that the media would use this as an example of a community that cares about its graduating seniors, who are appealing to the highest authority for their welfare," Kelley said. "This was a spontaneous, audience-led decision by the majority. But we're being portrayed by the media as having done something horrible, as if we're a bunch of nuts or something.
"It's a very sad commentary on life, isn't it, when we cannot even pray to God publicly because one person out of 4,000 or more didn't want us to. Is that democracy in action?" Kelley asked.