May 26, 2013 By Hemant Mehta
On Friday night, Lincoln County High School held its graduation. If the school’s name rings a bell, it’s because the administration had traditionally allowed (the obviously-mostly-Christian) students to vote on whether or not they wanted to say a prayer at the event, and — can you believe it?! — they always voted yes!
But this year, that changed when a group of atheist students spoke with the principal:
Bradley Chester, a graduating senior, is an atheist and one of the students who approached [Principal Tim] Godbey about not having prayer at graduation.
“I feel like you shouldn’t force your religion upon anybody,” Chester said in an interview with WKYT in Lexington. “And a lot of people are saying if there are prayers at graduation, you don’t have to participate, you can sit there and not listen, close your ears. Well, one, it’s my graduation. I shouldn’t have to close my ears.
“This is a place for school, not a church. I feel like I’m graduating from Lincoln County High, not Lincoln County Church.”
The administration and school board, knowing they would lose a lawsuit if they continued their old ways, half-heartedly canceled the invocation, but made it very clear that they would not screen students’ speeches beforehand… so if, say, the class president wanted to pray during his speech, they wouldn’t stop him…
Initially, I thought that the Senior Class President, Jonathan Hardwick, would do the right thing. He didn’t seem to understand a thing about church/state separation, but at least he could empathize with people who were forced to listen to a prayer to a God they didn’t believe in:
Senior class President Jonathan Hardwick, a Christian, said he hasn’t decided yet whether he will pray during his speech to classmates. He said he listened to the six students who don’t want prayer and can empathize with their situation.
“I talked to them and most of them said they just didn’t feel like they should listen to a prayer at their graduation to a god they don’t believe in,” he said. “I can understand their viewpoint because if I was in their shoes, I wouldn’t want to listen to a prayer to a god I didn’t believe in. If a Muslim was saying a prayer to their god, I wouldn’t want to sit there and listen to that, so I understand their viewpoint.”
So what happened Friday night?
Hardwick and the majority of people in the audience gave a metaphorical middle finger to everyone who wasn’t a Christian. He said a prayer — to Jesus Christ, in case there was any doubt that Christians are in the majority in this community — and they gave him a long standing ovation:
To be clear, Hardwick didn’t do anything illegal, but that doesn’t mean he did the right thing. The fact that the response was so over-the-top — as if Hardwick did something brave and noble — is just a sign that the community doesn’t give a damn about the laws. They want everything to be about Jesus, and they’re not letting the Constitution or non-Christian students get in their way.
Ricky Smith, a local atheist who has had some success of his own at getting God out of politics, attended the graduation at the request of some of the non-Christian parents and students. He said (via email) that the prayer wasn’t the only example of Christians sticking it to everybody else:
As I was pulling into the school parking lot, there was some church people at the entrance of the school and across the street from the school holding up “Jesus Saves” signs, [every one] of them yelling and screaming. As I drove into the parking lot I noticed a lot of Kentucky State police officers waking around and in the school… After the prayer, the people got up and gave a standing ovation… This sickened me to my stomach that I couldn’t stay and watch anymore of the ceremony… Afterward, I couldn’t help [but] think of how crude and rude that was to the people who were non-Christians students and friends and family members. Only people that got respected at this graduation were the Christians.
Public school graduations are supposed to honor all the students, celebrate what they have accomplished, and wish them well as they move on to the next phase of their lives. But the people at Lincoln County High School and the surrounding community decided long ago that their ceremonies shouldn’t focus on any of that. Instead, they should make non-Christians feel uncomfortable, unwanted, and unappreciated.
Sure, they could have prayed at home before attending the ceremony, but that’s not what they wanted. They wanted a public display of faith — and at the first attempt to keep the ceremony neutral, they reacted as if they were the ones being oppressed and marginalized. Even the class president, knowing how the non-Christian students would feel, decided to kick them while they were down. Instead of standing up for the voiceless minority — which a good leader would do — he took the easy path of telling the majority he agreed with them. A better president, even if he were Christian, would have chosen a different path.
Normally standing ovations are reserved for people who do something extraordinary. In this case, the audience gave Hardwick one, not because he did that, but more as a rebuke to those students who challenged the notion that a graduation ceremony shouldn’t be like a church service.
What a disappointing showcase for the school — to have a graduation ceremony be all about Jesus instead of all those students who worked so hard to get to this point.