For generations, students have led prayers at community events, such as their high school graduations, while those prayers were sometimes led by community leaders and faith leaders.
In this area, specifically in Pike County, more often than not those prayers were Christian, and mainly Protestant Christian. Such was the case with a student-led prayer at this year’s Pikeville High School graduation ceremony. This prayer was no different than any offered in previous years in that it followed that theme.
What was different this year was that a Wisconsin-based organization — the Freedom From Religion Foundation — received a “citizen complaint” that prayer was included and brought their bully hammer out to demand that no prayer ever be allowed to be a part of graduation ceremonies.
And what choice does the school district have? Take a stand that costs the taxpayers thousands, possibly millions of dollars or issue an edict that no prayer is ever allowed at district events? That’s not freedom. That’s tyranny.
The idea that no faith should be lived out publicly, that faith cannot be expressed within the confines of public life is not only horrifying, but also entirely contrary to the Constitution of the United States.
Simply put, the public life being proposed by organizations like the FRFF certainly doesn’t look anything like freedom. In fact, it appears to be the exact opposite. It appears to be slavery to the whim of the minority.
We are truly sorry that one person felt the prayer was offensive. But they were not held at gunpoint and made to confess Jesus Christ as Lord. They were not held out for ridicule because they do not believe. They were more than welcome to participate in a time of meditation, prayer to their own personal deity or deities or to simply sit in silence as the majority were allowed to participate in one of the most important parts of their faith life on one of the most important days of their lives.
We realize we are a diverse community, but we are also a community where the majority are either believers in one of the faiths which extend from the Judeo-Christian tradition — primarily Christianity. And, as such, it can reasonably be expected that faith will be expressed in the community in various ways.
If a person is truly not a believer, then being exposed to speech with which they disagree or with which they feel uncomfortable is all being exposed to prayer is — being exposed to words. That is an essential cost of freedom. If you agree with freedom of speech, you will be exposed to speech that sometimes offends you, a small price to pay to prevent the government from completely restricting our words.
At issue here, however, is something totally different than the framers of the Constitution intended when they inserted the establishment clause, an attempt to prevent the government from establishing a “national” religion. At issue here is a student-led and student-written prayer over which the district ostensibly exercises no control.
And that’s where this crosses from an attempt to enforce the establishment clause to an attempt to strongarm the system into policing speech. And, once that freedom is lost, it’s going to be a difficult one to re-establish, especially since the right’s own exercise is what sustains it.
The last case in which this issue was discussed before the Supreme Court is nearly 20 years old, and we have some indication that the ruling may not go the same this time, under the current court’s makeup. But no school district should be bullied into spending taxpayer dollars in an attempt to defend what should be a fundamental and understood right of freedom of expression on the part of the students.
We would hope, in this time of unprecedented division and social strife, that the Freedom From Religion Foundation would find ways to wield its influence in a manner to unite, not divide. That would be the moral thing to do.