Working for Americans United, I sometimes hear about public school officials who have a very poor understanding of the Constitution.
But no matter how many times I hear these stories, it still always shocks me that there are educators out there who refuse to respect the rights of all students, not just the majority.
That’s what’s happening in Bastrop, La., right now. A graduating senior who is an atheist has asked his school to discontinue prayers at commencement.
After receiving Damon Fowler’s complaint, the school reluctantly agreed to take it out of the graduation program this Friday.
“[The student] said if we included a traditional prayer in the ceremony that they would contact the [American Civil Liberties Union],” Bastrop High School Principal Stacey Pullen said. “We asked our attorney about it, and we are making changes to the program.”
That’s the right thing to do, especially considering that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 18 years ago that prayers at graduation violate the constitutional separation of church and state. The school has been in violation of the First Amendment for a long time.
The high court said in Lee v. Weisman, “[E]veryone knows that in our society and in our culture high school graduation is one of life’s most significant occasions…. [T]he Constitution forbids the State to exact religious conformity from a student as a price of attending her own high school graduation.”
While it’s great that this school finally plans to abide by the law, it still fails to make for a happy ending, particular for Damon.
Because he stood up for his rights, Damon is now being ostracized by school officials, students and members of the community, who are rallying to get official prayer back into the ceremony.
He writes on the website Reddit, “I've had to deactivate my Facebook account and I can't reason with any of them. They refuse to listen. The whole town hates me, aside from a few closet atheists that are silently supporting, which I don't blame them looking at what I've incited here.”
A school official has attacked Damon in a local newspaper for standing up for his constitutional rights.
Mitzi Quinn, a member of the high school’s staff for nearly 25 years, said that in the past, students who were atheist, agnostic or otherwise non-Christian “had no problems” with the prayer.
“They respected the majority of their classmates and didn’t say anything,” Quinn said. “We’ve never had this come up before. Never.”
She added, “And what’s even more sad is this is a student who really hasn’t contributed anything to graduation or to their classmates.”
She’s wrong. I’d say Damon’s made quite the contribution. He’s taught his fellow students that no matter how hard it is, they should stand up for what’s right. He also represents all those who have been afraid to challenge the unconstitutional practice all these years.
What’s happening in Louisiana should also be a lesson to all school officials. They can’t trample the rights of their students just because they feel like it. If every minority group refused to fight for their rights, as Quinn suggests, then where would our country be today?
The Constitution serves to protect the right of the minority, especially when public officials refuse to do it themselves.
AU commends Damon and supports him in his fight.