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.

Bill Santagata May 31, 2012 at 07:09 PM
A high school graduation is not a church service, and the student body of a high school cannot vote to override controlling Supreme Court precedent -- in this case, Lee v. Weisman which also came out of Rhode Island. Schools can have a moment of silence so that everyone can pray however they like, or simply reflect on the past four years. If God is truly the all-powerful creator of the universe, He is not hard of hearing and does not require the prayer be read into a microphone before a large crowd of people in order for Him to hear it. In fact, such public displays of prayer are against the Bible to begin with! (Matthew 6:1–8).
Bill Santagata May 31, 2012 at 07:14 PM
Also, I should add that the Freedom From Religion Foundation was not involved in Ahlquist v. City of Cranston. The ACLU of Rhode Island litigated Jessica's case.
Prof. Frederick Sweet June 01, 2012 at 07:24 AM
This time I'll have to criticize the CranstonPatrch for not explicitly and up front printing the word "public" where it belongs. Especially for this story, that is sloppy journalism. Not seeing the word "public" in an otherwise informative account, I had to assume the law suit is against the Lexington-Richland PUBLIC school district because if it were a Catholic or Baptist school district then high school graduate Matthew Nelson would have been foolish to sue a PRIVATE Christian school. That is the key issue. As in the Crantson PUBLIC high school case, Americans have the legal right guaranteed in our Constitution to be free from Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Jainsim, Baha'ism ... and, yes, even Christianity. In the Lexington-Richland case, the students were persecuted by being required to go through a religious ritual at their graduation. Although that is not what the Crantson problem had been about, the fundamental issue in the two situations was the same. No PUBLIC (there's that word again) school may legally expose their students to religion (with the very rare exception of objectively teaching them comparative religion ... without emphasizing any single one) because the United States Constitution's Bill of Rights forbids it. Moreover, the next time CranstonPatrch decides to publish a story about school prayer, etc. it should kindly insert the pronoun "public" up front before the word "school" when introducing the piece. It matters.
Mark Schieldrop (Editor) June 01, 2012 at 10:28 AM
I understand what you're saying, Prof. Sweet. You're right — I shouldn't assume my readers would automatically realize this is a public school district, since private schools can have prayers, Mass, etc. I'll insert the word in the story.
Prof. Frederick Sweet June 01, 2012 at 10:49 AM
FOOTNOTE: It is easy to predict that the Lexington-Richland public school district will lose this case simply because DECADES ago the United States Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to require schoolchildren to recite prayers in public schools. Later, some schools were allowed to provide 1-2 minutes of silent meditation during which time students who wished could pray or not ... silently. It is amazing that in this day and age, in the 21st century public school boards STILL have not learned the Supreme Court and also U.S. Constitutional message: Americans since 1789 have been living in a secular society wherein their right to PRIVATELY practice their religion is forcefully protected by law. However, one group PUBLICLY imposing their religion on others IN PUBLIC PLACES (SUCH AS IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS) is forcefully forbidden by the same CONSTITUTION.
Bill Santagata June 01, 2012 at 11:57 AM
I also really don't think this story is germane to this site. This has nothing to do with Cranston and nothing to do with the prayer banner. Ahlquist v. City of Cranston, as a District Court decision, sets no binding precedent and will not determine the outcome of this case. There are other Supreme Court decisions from prior decades that control this case. I have a feeling you put it in here solely to drum up controversy.
Bill Santagata June 01, 2012 at 11:58 AM
Your reading of the case law is not 100% accurate. Certainly no public school can *require* a student to recite a prayer, but this would violate the Free Exercise Clause of the 1st Amendment. Under the Establishment Clause, pubic schools cannot even endorse or give the impression that they favor certain religious activities or messages whether or not students are required to participate.
gertie June 01, 2012 at 01:14 PM
I live in Cranston, but am in Wisconsin right now. Wisconsin needs to focus on voting for a Govenor and economy . Rhode Island needs to focus on unemployment like WI completely and cost of living in this state!! Seriously gentlemen, we have MUCH, MUCH more important. matters to contend with. Personally I am a believer in my Lord, but when we have many people suffering in BOTH states, my concern does not fall under the young man who suffered during this one moment during his graduation. Please sirs, can we all get back to work maybe now and help? Thank you from tired citizens in WI & RI
Joe The Plumber June 01, 2012 at 01:19 PM
The rabid minority if Christ hating atheists are at it again ...
Bill Santagata June 01, 2012 at 01:24 PM
For the millionth time, it's not about hating religion; it's about holding government accountable to its constitutional duty to remain neutral in matters of religion. There is no reason why the school could not have had a moment of silence -- this way everyone can pray however they want to without the government taking a stand on which way they think is proper. It is disturbing that Christians think that they are above the law and can use government events, resources, and buildings as a mouthpiece to broadcast their religious messages to others (in contradiction with their own Bible as well I might add), but yet will not afford the same time and space to all other religions, which the government is required to treat equally as Christianity.
Joe The Plumber June 01, 2012 at 01:26 PM
Since 1789 our Congress retained paid (Christian) chaplains to open sessions with prayer. But if a kid says a prayer at a graduation, all hell breaks loose. This is getting ridiculous.
Mark Schieldrop (Editor) 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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