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Uniting Church and State via a Sneeze

Photo Credit: Creative Commons – Vinos Photo

Students across the country are preparing to return to schools and colleges in the coming weeks.

Whether you agree with it or not, the rights of faith-based student organizations face increasing pressure under the oft-touted shield that separates church and state in this country.

Yesterday, I stumbled upon this story that I’d never heard before that provided a unique twist on the debate of church versus state.

This excerpt has been vetted and verified by the fine folks over at snopes.com:

….the facts of the story are these: on 20 May 2001 during the commencement exercises at Washington Community High School in Washington, Illinois.

With the help of the ACLU, the family of Natasha Appenheimer, that year’s valedictorian, brought suit to prevent the inclusion of the invocation and benediction (prayer) traditionally given at the school’s commencement ceremony.

The suit was decided in the favor of the Appenheimers when, three days before the ceremony, the court handed down a temporary order barring the inclusion of the prayers on the basis of their having been deemed “school sponsored” (and thereby an unconstitutional violation of the first amendment’s “establishment clause”).

People were angered by the decision, which overturned a tradition of 80 years’ standing at Washington Community High. Many found unique ways of protesting the judge’s ruling.

  • Before the ceremony, students organized a prayer vigil around the school’s flagpole. Some 50 seniors clasped hands in a circle while about 150 underclassmen and members of the community encircled them.
  • Several students covered their mortarboards with religious slogans: “I’m praying now,” “Amen,” “1 nation under God,” and “I will still pray 2 day.”  
  • One parent distributed 120 homemade wood-and-nail crosses among the students.

Yet it was the act of Ryan Brown, a member of the graduating class who was scheduled to give a speech during the event, that is now celebrated in urban legend emails regarding the incident. As his form of protest, he had worked it out with a handful of friends that when he faked a sneeze at the podium, they were to cry out “God bless you.”

The plan was carried out as envisioned, with everyone who had been in on it playing their assigned parts. The crowd in attendance erupted in cheering applause at the student-driven protest.

Again, I’d never heard this story before yet I found it to be both powerful and inspiring. The students exercised their constitutional right to free speech and assembly. I’m not sure I would have had that courage as a 17 year old.

So, with a new school year upon us – the same old questions deserve to be considered….

Question: Should student religious groups be allowed on campuses and use classroom facilities for after school meetings? Should students be allowed to pray during school if they so choose?

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  1. Mr. Montemayor, in my senior civics class in high school, made a statement that has stuck with me for almost forty years– “My right to swing my hand ends the moment it connects with your nose.” I am constantly puzzled and dismayed at the lack of a sense of fair play that many Christians exhibit in the public arena- the belief in the unfettered rights for the fading Christian majority to impose its religious rights on people who do not agree, a lack of willingness to acknowledge the bloody historical background of oppression, violence and cruelty in which many non Christian people receive our insistence on promoting our beliefs above theirs , and repudiation of basic founding principles that evangelical religious leaders– Baptists– set in motion at the beginning of our country. How can we insist that others endure a prayer in Jesus’ name when we decry the excesses of other religious and philosophical viewpoints? I am not impressed by a seventeen year-old who has been taught that what they are doing is legitimate protest, unless someone has take the care to show them how they are actively protesting the “indefeasible, fundamental and absolute freedom of conscience” for which our evangelical forebears gave their all.

    • Mark, I appreciate your passion; however, your point about there being a “legitimate protest” model is flawed.

      Not every individual can block the path of a Chinese tank in Tiananmen Square, but that doesn’t degrade lesser types of protests, issues or Ryan Brown’s right to free speech which I shared in the post above.

      • I’d be interested in how my point is flawed, Tor. We may have to agree to disagree on this. Ryan’s “protest” can legitimately be seen to be a “protest” against someone else’s objection to having the state favor one religious view over the other. I happen to believe that a basic error is when dominant groups confuse their privileges with others’ civil rights.

        • We all have civil rights and protected rights under the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Your word selection above misclassifies Ryan’s right to free speech and right to dissent/protest as “privilege.” That’s flawed.

          Also, he has as much right as anyone to express his dissenting viewpoint, and his personal beliefs don’t magically de-legitimatize his protest – as you assert. That point is also flawed.

  2. The Good Greatsby says:

    I feel like there are plenty of forums for religious expression. I don’t know why we need to put so much pressure on opportunities to express religious sentiments in public forums.

  3. First, nothing is stopping anyone from praying anytime they want to. I can pray anytime I want to at work. I don’t have to make a show about it. That being said, I am always conflicted when one student or person who is offended goes to court to stop something like this. If I was in the minority, I wouldn’t make a scene or prevent the others from enjoying a time honored tradition. I would just ignore it and move on. Also, if I students want to vet tovether and have a bible study on school property, fine. If they want to get togetther and discuss atheistic views, fine.

  4. Roy A. Ackerman, PhD, EA says:

    There’s a hell of a lot different between invoking G0d and invoking a religious embodiment of G0d. That was the impetus behind the complaint (valid beyond belief, pun intended), that’s what was wrong with posting crosses on school grounds, etc.
    Those same folks are by and large the ones screaming Chicken-Little-like that those of the Islamic faith plan on imposing sharia law on America. It would be just as wrong- if it were true.

  5. I think any group, and I mean any, that wants to meet on school grounds needs to have a legitimate reason for using that venue. Scouts that I know about meet at churches. I think a few moments of silence is a good way to deal with praying or not. When I subbed in Fort Worth, there was a moment of silence after the pledge. Everyone was respectful of each other, no matter how rambunctious the kids were the rest of the day. I was praying like crazy that I wouldn’t kill one of the little darlings. My prayers were answered. I’m not in jail. Still I would be rather worried if the Satanists wanted to hold meetings after school on the premises. If we allow Christians, why not Satanists?

  6. The state of our nation and the world is tied directly to the diminished state of men. The diminished state of man is tied directly to tolerance. Through tolerance men have allowed opinion, feeling, tradition, convention, doctrine, religion, invention, education and so on and so forth to become truth.

    There is only one truth and that truth is found in Christ. Everything else is bullshit and deadly lies disguised beneath a million shades of gray.

    When the foundation of a life, family, school, city, nation, etc. is built on Christ’s truth, every choice and action arises from that truth and therefore creates incredibly wonderful lives for all.

    When the foundation is built with men’s opinion, feeling, tradition, doctrine, invention and so on, choices and actions arise that are deficient and therefore create less than favorable results for all.

    If the foundation of our nation were built on Christ we’d reach the following answers.

    Should any religious group be allowed to assemble? NO

    Should groups that follow Christ be allowed? Absolutely

    Should students be allowed to pray? Only If they are praying to God in Jesus’ name.

    Unfortunately, the foundation has been infused with opinion, feeling, tradition and invention so those answers will be more difficult but not impossible to sustain.

    P.S. Christ taught and demonstrated the simplest of strategies for living a great life. Unfortunately, Christ has been represented poorly, but it matters not because Christ (truth) will prevail.

    There is only one Truth-Christ. Everything else is bullshit or deadly lies.

  7. If a school will take my tax dollars that say “In God We Trust” then kids should be allowed to use school facilities for religious clubs.

    The whole idea of “separation of church & state” is like a divorce forged in Hades. The two aren’t mutually exclusive because the result is an amoral and relativistic society (which i think is a good description of the cultural climate in America).

    There seems to be a double standard in that anything that even resembles Christianity is negatively labeled and treated like the plague, but every other perspective is under the “freedom of speech” umbrella.

    I’m proud of these students and I would’ve done the same thing.

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