I grew up with public school prayer and my fourth grade tyrant, Mrs. Earing, not only made us pray daily but also made us sing Faith of Our Fathers every Friday morning (though we never included the original verse praising the Virgin). A choir we were not. I really dislike that hymn. Best I can remember the morning sequence was a Scripture verse, prayer, and the Pledge of Allegiance. It is a strange conviction to develop at fourth grade, some of it doubtlessly owing to my dislike of Mrs. Earing and her hymn, but I knew it was wrong.

I have always liked the so-called Lemon Test, arising from Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). Any practice within a public school or a state facility must have a secular purpose, must neither advance nor inhibit religion as its primary effect, and must not result in an excessive entanglement between government and religion. When it comes to state-sponsored religious observance, I’m against it.

So we move to my daughter’s recent high school graduation, a huge class of three hundred and forty some seniors, held in a large Baptist church auditorium. It was the only space available in our school district that had any promise of actually accommodating the anticipated audience. Students were restricted to eight tickets for family members. After both sets of grandparents, a younger sibling, my wife and I, we had one left for a family friend who wanted to tag along. (A friend indeed is a friend attending a high school graduation.)

Last year Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to stop Wisconsin’s Elmbrook School District from holding its high school graduation ceremonies at local church. Americans United argued that holding a public ceremony in a space dedicated to Christian observances was “unfair to non-Christian members of the student body.” “Not fair” is what the press reported, but I gather it actually involved something of the Lemon Test, a bit of a stretch, really.

The issue for the Wisconsin school board—which wasn’t an issue until Americans United stepped in—was finding everybody a place to sit, as in our community. In a context of this sort, a place is a place, and the public institutions sponsoring community events ought to be allowed to use a private building, even a church facility, made available for a community (which is to say, a tax-payer) event if it provides the best space for group of tax-payers to watch their children graduate high school. Besides, it if means the difference between getting eight tickets or only seven, I will gladly sit in any strange place I am put.

I have been unable to find out how Americans United for Separation of Church and State made out in their case. Had I known, though, that prayer would be featured at my daughter’s graduation—the sixth I’ve attended in my parental career—I think I might have cheered them on without reservation.

We endured two prayers. What? Yes, that’s the word I will use, and yes, the people in the auditorium mostly said “amen” in the right place and, yes, some did it with unfeigned enthusiasm, and, sure, so far as I can tell the Republic has not shattered. But it wasn’t the place, and it wasn’t the time, and even if I wasn’t offended I was uncomfortable and I felt bad for anyone who might have been both.

The outreach pastor of the Baptist congregation brought greetings to the gathered parents and friends. He explained that this Baptist congregation was delighted to make the hall available for any use by any group that did not contravene the congregation’s commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. On behalf of the congregation he congratulated the students and their parents.

And then, “Now, let’s pause for a moment of prayer.” Whereupon he proceeded to pray for most everything related to the graduation, concluding the prayerful wish Jesus Christ would personally guide each student to a future of faith and success. This for a student body which included kids who are Hindu and Muslim.

A bit later the class valedictorian took it upon herself to offer another prayer, much along the same line with much the same sentiment.

The valedictorian I was told was exercising her right to free speech. And, yes, she did. Right up to the prayer. Her right to free speech certainly included the right to say that faith in Christ contributed to her academic success, motivating her to her best effort; that her Christian faith will unquestionably figure into her post-high school future and will carry her through all her coming adult years. I pray it does.

And she would have been equally free to say it was her personal prayer that everyone come to discover for themselves what she had found in Christ. That I think is a fair thing for anyone to say. As an opinion in the marketplace, it is free speech, and why not? I have sat through worse valedictorians, including the one who attributed his academic awakening to the writings of Ayn Rand. As for the pastor, well, maybe he just doesn’t know how to conclude any talk without a prayer at the end, but that is still no excuse.

I don’t want to see Christians—or people of any religion—concede ground in the public square. And I certainly do not want to see Americans banning Muslim scarves, WWJD buttons, crosses, or yamulkas. Let it all flow and mix, I say. But when we were summoned to prayer, a line got crossed.

I’m not likely to call down the wrath of Americans United; at lot of what they do is silly and frivolous. But I would not have minded a little Christian discretion, some greater discernment on when prayer may or may not be properly invoked.

Articles by Russell E. Saltzman

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