Weeks before Jacob Davis was scheduled to graduate from Southeastern High School in Chillicothe, Ohio, the 17-year-old senior wrote a letter to the editor of the Chillicothe Gazette. In it, he encouraged school officials to discontinue unconstitutional clergy-led Christian prayers at commencement.
After some help from Americans United, Davis, a Wiccan, won a significant victory when the sectarian devotions were dropped. Though school officials agreed to stop the clergy-led prayers, they later chose two students to give opening and closing “remarks” at graduation. These students led the audience in prayer, thus circumventing church-state separation.
In an interview with Church & State, Davis discussed his experience.
Q: Why did you decide to publicly speak out about the clergy-led Christian prayers at your school’s graduation ceremonies?
A: It had upset me since I was a freshman. I was in band, and we played the opening song and “Pomp and Circumstance,” so I had to be there. It wasn’t my choice. Sitting there during that prayer always made me uncomfortable. I didn’t feel I should have to listen to it.
So this year, I said finally, “You know what, this is my senior year, and I’ll be graduating and I have plenty of friends who feel the same way I do.” I became the voice for a lot of people – that meant something to me to stand up for my rights as well as for my friends’ rights and other people’s rights.
Q: Forty-four classmates (out of 87 seniors) signed a petition asking for a moment of silence instead of prayers. Was it hard to get support for the petition?
A: It wasn’t hard at all. I was sitting in my government class (senior social studies), and after I created the petition, I walked around to every student in that room (there were only seniors in that class). I told them what the petition was for and asked if they would want to sign it. There were a few people who didn’t sign it and told me they disagreed with me. But every person that did sign it, I didn’t have to persuade them to do it.
Q: What was the reaction from school officials?
A: I didn’t trust the administration, so the very first thing I did was write the letter to editor. I didn’t want to present them with the issue and have the administration brush it off like it is no problem at all. So I went straight to the public so that everyone would know that I have a serious concern.
We read the paper in social studies class, so I had been checking daily to see when my letter would be published. The day I saw it, I showed it to my teacher and he read it. He told me he may not agree with me religiously, but as far as prayer goes at a graduation, it is unconstitutional and he agreed with me. All three of the high school social studies teachers agreed with me.
No one in the administration asked to meet with me after they saw the letter. I had to go to them. I didn’t go down to see the principal until I had the petition. I really wanted to make sure I had support, so he would know it wasn’t just me. I wanted him to know that over half of the senior class agreed with me.
He was actually very nice about it and very sensible, which surprised me. I didn’t expect him to treat the situation the way he did. He told me that he likes to give seniors the leeway as to what happens at their graduation ceremony, but at the same time, he had to look at our community, and taxpayers and the traditions that we already had. If he angers the taxpayers and community that supports the school, they could lose sponsorship and things like that. He went on to tell me that if the school is doing something that is illegal or unconstitutional, he wants it to stop. He told me that he would have the school board’s attorney look into whether it was unconstitutional or not.
Once the school received the letter from Americans United, the principal told me that it was no longer up to him anymore, and that it was up to the school board and the superintendent.
Q: How did you Americans United get involved in your case?
A: On the Gazette Web site, you can comment on online articles, and people were commenting on mine. I had 30-some pages of comments on my article. One of the people on the comment page told me I should get in touch with Circle Sanctuary. Then Selena Fox at Circle Sanctuary and the Lady Liberty League got in touch with me. She told me they are a Pagan civil rights group, and my rights are being infringed upon. Selena actually told me that she talked to Ian Smith at Americans United, and that he would represent me and fight for me free of cost. She asked me if I wanted to get in touch with him, and I said of course.
Q: What was the reaction from your classmates?
A: I went into this situation knowing it was going to make some people upset. I held the letter for a week deciding whether or not to actually send it. I knew there would be some who would support and others who wanted to help fight the cause. But at the same time, I knew a lot of people would be mad at me and would definitely think I’m wrong.
But the majority of the students supported me. Keep in mind not all 87 students go to school at the building. Many – about 30 – go to a vocational center. So there were only 50 seniors in the building to ask to sign the petition, which means I had almost 90 percent of all the signatures.
But there were some students who highly disagreed with what I was doing. And many times they told me that I should sit down and be quiet while the prayer is being said, and if I don’t like it, I can sit there and pray to whoever I want to.
I told them that Supreme Court said it is unconstitutional and asked them why they still wanted to do it if they knew it was wrong. A lot of times their response would be, “Well, it’s tradition.”
Q: Your letter in the newspaper about church-state separation law was very well written and legally sound. Did you spend a lot of time researching and writing it?
A: A friend of mine was salutatorian this year. He is one of the smartest individuals I know. His name is Josh Cartee. I was talking to him about it, and he mentioned that there was a Supreme Court case from 1992, Lee v. Weisman, that said prayer at graduation is unconstitutional. I researched it on a government Web site, and it listed all the details about the case, what happened at the school, how it was handled and what each Supreme Court justice said. I read every word of it. And I thought to myself that I am definitely right.
I made sure I did my homework so no one could look at my letter and say it was false. I wanted a very well-developed letter.
Q: Was your family supportive of your stand?
A: My mother is Catholic, and my father’s side is devout Christian. When I sent the letter in, no one in my family knew about it. After it came out, I went to my grandparents’ house (my father’s parents’ house), and my grandfather called me over and asked if I wrote the letter. I told him “yeah.” He started asking me questions about it, and he supported me. And my grandma supported me too.
I still didn’t tell a lot of my family because many are very devout Catholic, and I didn’t want them to think less of me. Then News Channel 4 showed up at my house, and my mom kind of knew after that point. My interview ran the next night. Then I had grandparents, aunts, uncles calling me – the ones I was uneasy about finding out. They all said they supported me, even if they didn’t agree with me.
Q: After Americans United wrote to school officials siding with you, the school superintendent canceled the clergy-led prayers. Were you surprised?
A: I was very surprised because I definitely felt like one person stood up against a giant. I definitely felt like I had just won a really, really big fight. I was so proud of myself. Any time someone would talk about it, I would always get the biggest grin on my face.
Q: School officials chose two students to give so-called “opening and closing remarks” at the graduation and both used the opportunity to offer prayers. Was this an intentional effort to get around the Constitution’s requirements?
A: That’s the thing that kind of got me. I understand that if a student is speaking and then they start praying, they are exercising their right to free speech. I love when a person exercises their rights, because so many people have fought and died for it. I love that I have my rights, and I support anybody who exercises their rights.
But I feel the school board members wanted to get around me to get what they wanted. I can’t prove they asked the students to pray. But at the same time, it feels like that is what happened.
The students were chosen to speak after I wrote my letter. The first student who spoke, her grandpa is on the school board. She is the one person who disagreed with me the whole time. No matter what, she was right, I was wrong. She gave an opening remark, and she asked everyone to stand to pray. At the very end of her speech, she said, “And all God’s people said…,” and she put out her arms and the majority of the people said “Amen.”
The student who gave the closing speech, her father is on the school board. And she gave a prayer and asked everyone to stand and pray.
I don’t know if that prayer was written into their speeches that they had prepared for the night, but the principal is supposed to read and approve these speeches beforehand. I don’t think that happened at all.
I definitely felt undermined by the whole thing, but I know the fight is not over. The school is not done hearing from me, and as soon as school starts up again, I’m going to write the school board a letter and make sure it is very proper and professional and let them know what they did was wrong.
Q: According to press accounts, a lot of people stood up and joined in the student-led prayers. What is Chillicothe like? Why did they do that?
A: The town is very religious. I live in a small town of Londonderry. It is basically just the crossing of two roads, and there are two churches. I used to live in a neighboring town called Richmondale, and there were four churches in that town. And when you go down just Main Street in Chillicothe, there are five churches. It is a very, very religious part of Ohio. On the news, when they referred to Ross County and Chillicothe as the “Bible Belt” of Ohio, I definitely agreed with it, because everyone you turn to will be Christian.
Q: Have you encountered a lot of hostility from people in the community?
A: A lot of people in the community were very mad and upset. A person that I have never met in my life walked by me, and she stopped and looked at me, and she said, “You need to pray, because it is good for everybody.” That is exactly word-for-word what this woman said. I looked at her, and I didn’t know what to say to that, and I said, “No, I really don’t have to do anything you want me to.” That was the only thing I could come up with because she was just some random person who I had never met.
I’m not speaking about all Christians, because many are humble, open-minded people, but she was a prime example of a lot of narrow-minded Christians pushing their beliefs on you because she feels she is right and everyone else is wrong and you are going to Hell.
Q: Some students wore “Team Jacob” shirts to the graduation. What was that about?
A: Those were some very close Pagan friends of mine. They had told me that they were going to come in wearing those shirts to support me. I felt very happy and very joyous that they would do that.
Q: Now that graduation is over, how do you feel about how things turned out?
A: I feel I did something good in standing up for a very good cause. And for the most part, I won. But at the same time, what happened at graduation happened. I definitely feel that I have to fight it. I can’t change a tradition like that as quickly as I wanted to. I was hoping to, but if that were to happen, I would have been doing back flips. But you got to pull some teeth, and I’m prepared to do so.
Q: What are your plans now that high school has ended?
A: I’m planning to find a job so I can start saving money, because I told my parents I’m not going to college until I have money in my savings account. So that’s what I am doing right now. I plan on going to Hocking College and major in music production.
Q: Do you expect to stay interested in civil liberties?
A: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I got a taste of how it works, and as long as there is a reason to fight, I’m going to do so. As many chances as I get to stand up for civil rights and civil liberties, especially in the Pagan community, I’m going to.