STANFORD, Ky. — A high school student in Kentucky received a standing ovation during his graduation ceremony on Friday after he led attendees in prayer despite complaints from students who had sought to thwart the invocation.
Class President Jonathan Hardwick was also echoed in an “amen” after he acknowledged God from the platform.
“Thank you for helping us get here safely today, Lord,” he prayed. “And thank you for the many blessings You have given us.”
At first, the room filled with claps and cheers for Hardwick, but several seconds later, graduation attendees rose to their feet.
Prayer has been a tradition at Lincoln County High School, but this year, six students approached Principal Tim Godbey and asked him to put an end to the practice.
“This is a place for school. not a church. I feel like I’m graduating from Lincoln County High, not Lincoln County church,” student Bradley Chester, an atheist, told WKYT-TV. “I feel like you shouldn’t force your religion upon anybody. And a lot of people are saying if there are prayers at graduation, you don’t have to participate, you can sit there and not listen, close your ears. Well, one, it’s my graduation. I shouldn’t have to close my ears.”
Principal Godbey, a Christian, replied to the complaints by noting that while school officials cannot pray at public events or otherwise endorse a particular religion, the Constitution allows students the right to pray if they wish.
“No students have ever done that before,” Godbey told reporters, referring to the requests to stop the invocation. “My responsibility in upholding the Constitution and the First Amendment is [that] I have to protect their rights as well as the rights of those that want [the prayer].”
Prior to the graduation ceremony, Hardwick implied that he was going to proceed with the invocation even if he was told not to do so.
“If I want to have a prayer, the school can’t stop me,” he said. “[B]ut the school can’t say, ‘Come up here and pray,’ [as] that’s the school supporting prayer, but if I want to pray they can’t stop me.”
Video footage of Hardwick’s prayer was posted on YouTube and other outlets following the event, and has so far generated over 6,000 views. A number of viewers debated the issue in the comments section, while others simply left words of encouragement for the student.
“Way to go Mr. Hardwick [in] standing up for your Christian beliefs,” one commenter named Tanya wrote. “If we had a handful more like you in this world, it would be a lot better of a place!”
“I’m so glad Jonathan went ahead and prayed!” exclaimed another named Suzanne. “So many times those in authority allow the beliefs of [a few] student[s] to keep the rest of the students from praying and acknowledging God, and that isn’t right morally or constitutionally.”
However, some attendees are upset that the prayer was allowed to go forward. Ricky Smith, an atheist that was invited to the ceremony, says that he plans on contacting the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
“Every student should feel safe at their graduation and should not have to worry about religious bullying,” he said.
Smith reportedly left the room during the duration of the prayer.