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Echos of Prayer Banner after South Carolina Student Sues Over Graduation Prayer

Matthew Neilson says that prayer during the ceremony violates his rights under the First Amendment.

Cranston residents might take interest in this story, posted on Irmo-SevenOaks Patch. 

The same group that played a supporting role in the Cranston West Prayer Banner saga, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is supporting 18-year-old Irmo High school graduate Matthew Nelson, who is suing the Lexington-Richland 5 public school district for allowing prayer during graduation. 

Matthew Neilson says he suffered "unwanted exposure to a school-sanctioned invocation/benediction/prayer/religious message/blessing" when a fellow classmate read a prayer before the graduates received their diplomas Wednesday, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Columbia. 

Neilson told WIS that he didn't feel like he was a part of that portion of the graduation ceremony. 

"I didn't remove my cap," Nielson said. "I looked toward the superintendent and let the time pass. I was obviously not a part of that part of the graduation ceremony. The district didn't feel like it needed to find time for me and my non-religious or non-Christian friends."

Neilson filed the lawsuit along the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Wisconsin that defends the separation between church and state and educates the public about non-theist views. 

In the Cranston West case, plaintiff Jessica Ahlquist was the plaintiff in a suit filed by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The prayer in question in Cranston was a painted mural that contained references to "our Holy Father" and concluded with "Amen."

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux ruled in favor of the ACLU. 

The plaintiffs claim that the prayer at graduation was a violation of Neilson's rights under the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, according to the lawsuit. 

A district policy allows for a benediction or invocation at graduation if the majority of the senior class votes in favor of it, according to the lawsuit. The class of 2012 voted in favor of having a prayer. 

Neilson met with Irmo High's principal, wrote a letter to the school board and met with the superintendent to request that the prayer not be delivered, according to the lawsuit. But his request was denied. 

Click the links to read Neilson's first and second letters of complaint. 

He told WIS, he hopes his lawsuit will stop prayer from being included in future graduations.

Mark Schieldrop June 01, 2012 at 01:27 PM
That is correct, Bill. I should clarify: The Freedom From Religion Foundation became involved in the prayer banner issue when it filed a complaint with the state over a florist who refused to deliver flowers to Ahlquist. They were not named in the lawsuit.
Bill Santagata June 01, 2012 at 01:33 PM
The Supreme Court has addressed the question of legislative prayer and they did rule in Marsh v. Chambers that it was constitutional for legislatures to open their sessions with prayer provided that they were either non-sectarian or the legislature rotated which religious group was giving the prayer, and that no prayer disparaged anyone for holding different beliefs. But there is a higher Establishment Clause standard set for public schools because the audience involves children who are more impressionable and at least during the school day their attendance is mandatory. In Lee v. Weisman, the court ruled that a high school graduation is such a monumental event in a young person's life that it would be unreasonable to expect someone to skip it in order to avoid a government-endorsed religious message he or she disagreed with. ("Attendance may not be required by official decree, yet it is apparent that a student is not free to absent herself from the graduation exercise in any real sense of the term "voluntary," for absence would require forfeiture of those intangible benefits which have motivated the student through youth and all her high school years. Graduation is a time for family and those closest to the student to celebrate success and express mutual wishes of gratitude and respect, all to the end of impressing upon the young person the role that it is his or her right and duty to assume in the community and all of its diverse parts." Lee v. Weisman.)
Bill Santagata June 01, 2012 at 01:38 PM
And as Justice O'Connor pointed out in her Wallace v. Jaffree concurrence, comparison to what the Founding Fathers did may be applicable in other contexts, but not in public schools, as we did not have a public school system at the founding of our country. This environment poses a different set of circumstances that the Founders could not have considered.
gertie June 01, 2012 at 01:57 PM
Did I state anywhere gentlemen, the word CHRISTIANITY? Please JUST simply Read the words that I have typyed NOT the words You are reading in between the lines!! I once AGAIN am asking for HELP along with OUR Government (yes, this IS for you as well gentlemen) to aid BOTH states in this our Unitef States Of America. My father fought in Korea, Vietnan (2), in the Army, Front Lines for over 25 years and as his daughter who buried him, I KNOW what being PROUD of My Country means AND yes even saying a prayer or two...Privately of course so not to offend this student who stands on Free Land in a Free Country like you gentlemen. So NO it is NOT about one of those Christians at it again sir. I am continuing to help OUR PEOPLE where my Father (dad, do panic I didn't swear in your world) left off. In conclusion , a little more respect please. Thank you. Army Brat Too and VERY Proud!!!
Joe The Plumber June 03, 2012 at 05:31 AM
America. Pray what you want to. Pray where you want to. Pray when you want to. Pray in public. Pray in private. America.

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