Religious expression by means of prayer said at Wallenpaupack graduation exercises will be curtailed, following an inquiry by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
Superintendent Michael Silsby announced at the August 19th School Board meeting that the practice of allowing an Invocation and Benediction by local members of the clergy has been challenged as unconstitutional.
That is despite a disqualifier placed every year in the inside front cover of the Commencement Program stating, "The senior class has specifically requested that an Invocation and Benediction be included in their graduation ceremonies. The manner and content of this Invocation and Benediction is being directed by the class."
It is also in spite of history. Prayers have been allowed at the start and closing of Commencement since the early days of Hawley High School, which opened in 1879. Commencement for the Class of 2014, which apparently will not have an Invocation or Benediction, happens to be the 50th graduation since the present high school was opened.
A parent of a Wallenpaupack Area High School student contacted the FFRF after the June 14th graduation with a complaint about the practice. At that graduation, Rev. Gregg Schafer of the Newfoundland Moravian Church gave the prayers.
FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert promptly notified the District in a letter dated June 24, 2013 citing case law finding the prayers "a serious constitutional violation."
FFRF is a national nonprofit organization with over 19,000 members. The stated purpose of FFRF is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state.
Markert wrote that the Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations. School officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member or clergy to pray at graduation at a public high school.
She noted that such prayer would lead an objective observer to perceive it as state endorsement or religion
Further citing case law, Markert wrote, "It is no defense that graduations are events at which participation or attendance is voluntary."
"Students wishing to participate should not be forced to forgo this momentous occasion in their lives simply because Wallenpaupack Area High School deems it necessary to include prayer in the ceremony," she penned. "We can agree that 'it is cruel to force any individual to violate his conscience to participate in such an important event in the individual's life'" (again citing case law).
Reaffirming the rights of the growing segment of minorities, she noted that the Supreme Court ruled that the question of prayer at graduation does not depend on how many students would or would not be offended.
Page 2 of 2 - Calling on Wallenpaupack to remain neutral toward religion, the FFRF attorney asked for written assurance that steps will be taken to ensure that "religious rituals" are not part of graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored events in the future.
Silsby informed the Board that legal opinion has been sought, and determined that even with the booklet disclaimer, the prayers are not acceptable in case law. He said that result is the District will no longer be able to schedule Invocation or Benediction. He said he would reply to the FFRF.
The Superintendent explained afterward that the District had made the contacts for the students to invite the clergy member. Even if the students were to make the arrangements themselves, he said, case law would not support it.
He affirmed that if the District were not to comply, the possibility of a court challenge would exist.
Jo-Ann Rose, a Palmyra Township-Pike resident, commented, "My son is graduating this year [Class of 2014]. I may have to make my own prayer." She said she is appalled by the decison.
Rev. Martin Cox, who retired from the pastorate at Hawley United Methodist Church last year, was invited by the School District in 2010 to pray at Commencment. "It's regrettable," he said of the cancellation of further public prayers. "But I'm not surprised by it." He said that he was concerned about this back in the 1990's and cautioned the School Board and Superintendent who were in place then, that "it was only a matter of time." He said the reaction then was that there would be no problem. At the time, there wasn't a problem, he said, but warned that someone would eventually raise the issue of "Church and State."
Asked about Baccalaureate Service, Silsby stated that participation at this traditional service, held at a different local church each year, has always been voluntary. Although the School District in the past helped make the contact, he said that the local ministerium will be offered to take over the arrangements.
At the opening of the August School Board meeting, Chairman John Spall announced that they would be deviating from their normal offering of prayer prior to the Pledge of Allegiance. Instead, a "moment of silence" was observed.
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