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?