It is rare to see more than one member of the general public at a Wallenpaupack School Board meeting- other than family of seniors being recognized. Topics from taxes to dress codes have not brought many out. The subject of school prayer at graduation ceremonies, however, brought a congregation's worth.
Attendance swelled to over 50, with about 10 people voicing their concerns. They shared their misgiving with the decision of stopping the practice of holding Invocation and Benediction at the ceremonies, as well as the Supreme Court rulings that were the basis of the School District's action.
Although these rulings show that a public school district cannot host clergy to pray at graduation, the students themselves, who have been invited to speak, have the Constitutional right to voice a prayer or mention God, if they choose to do so. The School District can neither prohibit or promote such action, the audience was told.
An attorney invited by the District, Lukas Repko of the Bethlehem law firm King, Spry, Herman, Freund & Faul LLC, first discussed the First Amendment and Constitutional Law, and how the US Supreme Court and PA courts have applied it to school prayer.
In June 2013, just after graduation, a parent not agreeing with the time-honored custom of allowing an invited minister to pray at the ceremony, filed a complaint with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). A lawyer with this organization swiftly wrote the School District, asking for a reply in writing, of what steps would be taken to cease the practice. Supreme Court rulings were cited.
--- Bound by the law
Superintendent Michael Silsby stressed to the audience that the decision is not one any of them may have wanted to make, but they are bound by case law and must remain neutral to matters of religion. Following receipt of the letter, the District conducted their own research over the summer. At the next board session in August, Silsby announced that legal opinion indicated they would no longer be able to schedule prayers at graduation.
Repko explained according to the First Amendment to the Constitution, government must not endorse religion, which can mean organizing or sponsoring an activity. Public school districts are part of the government. Having a public school district invite clergy carries the presumption that they are asked to come for a "religious purpose," and therefore violates the Constitution.
The First Amendment, however, protects religious activity initiated by private individuals.
Consequences of ignoring the law are very clear, he said. If the District were to continue hosting the public prayers, the District could face litigation. Should the District lose the case, attorney fees for the other side would have to be paid and could amount to $300,000 to $500,000. A court injunction would likely be ordered, enforceable by fines and court costs.
Page 2 of 4 - Silsby commented that the District had been careful to rotate clergy and kept a disclaimer that the senior class had specifically requested an Invocation and Benediction, and directed both the manner and content.
He said this was not an "emotional choice" on the District's part on stopping the practice, but they are bound by an oath to support the US Constitution. "It's not a choice personally I don't think we'd want to make, but when you have to look at the legal ramifications, you have to," Silsby said.
Baccalaureate services are permissible, Repko discussed, as long as they are not arranged by the School District. Court rulings show that such services may be held on school property, but cannot be promoted by the District.
The Superintendent said that they plan to continue having baccalaureate services. He said he would meet with the local clergy association and offer the services to them to arrange, and let them use the school auditorium as in the past.
--- Student speeches
It was Andy Anderson, in the audience, who first raised whether or not one of the students could be allowed to pray publicly at graduation.
Repko replied that the law does not "ban prayer" in school; there is nothing to prohibit prayer by private people- including students at graduation.
"What if I walked up at graduation and wanted to pray?," Anderson asked.
The District must be able to control events and keep decorum, Repko noted. Silsby stated that they have three students scheduled to speak at commencement: the Class President, who is selected by the Senior Class; the Valedictorian and the Salutatorian, who are picked according to their grades.
"The students must be picked by a secular process," Silsby noted. "We can't [purposely] pick an altar boy." The District cannot control what the students choose to say, and the District cannot be sued by it, he added.
They have freedom of speech, and the School District cannot promote what they say or restrict it, he said.
Terry Jung provided a booklet about a student's First Amendment rights.
While this option exists, another member of the audience commented that he hoped the three students who will eventually be picked to speak won't feel pressure by anyone to make a prayer.
--- Myriad ways
"Religion is brought into school in a myriad of ways," Silsby pointed out, while done so within the law. For instance, the phrase "Under God" is still in the Pledge of Allegiance. As long as there is a balance, chorus directors may include sacred songs among others during a holiday concert. Last year, the School District was questioned openly about teaching about religion in World Cultures class. The manner of which comparative world religions is brought in is allowable, so the curriculum has not been changed. After-school Bible clubs are also allowed, and the District rents out one of the schools for a local church to meet on Sundays.
Page 3 of 4 - Anderson commented about the Supreme Court rulings, "The Silent Majority has allowed this."
John Iona noted that one of the more recent Supreme Court actions on the subject of sch0ol prayer was passed by a 5 to 4 vote, with one justice who had changed his mind. A change in the Supreme Court complexion could change things, he added. Iona commended the School District for doing a "phenomenal job."
Michele Mascali Petersen, a parent of Wallenpaupack students, took aim at the denial of the majority's wishes. "The ONE opinion that I will bring forth is from the many high school students that I have mentioned this issue to… they mostly ALL looked at me and said “what about majority rules? Isn’t that what we have taught them since their first days in the playground?," she said.
Tammy Gillette asked if the District could inform the three student speakers that they have the right to insert religion if these choose. Repko said no, that would also be seen as "promoting religion." She also asked if the Declaration of Independence- which refers to the Creator- could be read at a public school graduation.
--- Private ceremony?
Among other comments raised, Mark Henkels asked if the graduating class could choose to have a private commencement ceremony, not run by the District but inviting the District personnel and Board as their guests.
This, however, assumes the whole class would want a private ceremony. Silsby noted that baccalaureate services in recent years have seen a decline in attendance. In June, they had 325 graduating, and 50 students at baccalaureate. Silsby added that the District decided to keep having baccalaureate "even if only one came."
Roberta Holcombe reminded that case law can be changed but it involves a fight which is costly.
Donna Reilly said that the District made the only decision it could make, but asked that the District not find a way around others who seek an alternative.
School Board Director Coulby Dunn interjected that he is a Christian, but believes the Superintendent made the right decision to keep the School District neutral.
Superintendent Silsby remarked that no one can argue of what is needed in society, given all the terrible news in the country. He said the Wallenpaupack Area School District "wants to turn out good citizens and human beings" with the support of their families and community.
Richard Caridi, who is the chairman of the Pike County Board of Commissioners, went to the podium and declared that he thanks God for the Wallenpaupack Area School District and prays that God give the District wisdom for this and every decision.
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