NORRIS CITY, Ill. — A Washington, D.C.-based humanist organization is threatening an Illinois school with a lawsuit if it does not discontinue presenting prayers at graduation ceremonies.
The Appignani Humanist Legal Center, an arm of the American Humanist Association (AHA), mailed a letter to officials at Norris City Ohama Enfield High School last week, citing a complaint from several students. The organization asserted that the student-led prayers violate the United States Constitution, and urged the school to cease and desist its practice.
“Not only do the graduation prayers place unconstitutional coercive pressure on students to participate in a religious exercise, but they also have the effect of advancing and endorsing religion,” the letter stated. “In light of the school’s supervision and control over the event, a reasonable observer would unequivocally perceive the prayers as being ‘stamped with [the] school’s seal of approval.’”
AHA also contended that the prayers are problematic because they contain references to Christianity.
“The prayers offered at your school’s graduation ceremonies are particularly troubling because they are often explicitly Christian,” it said. “Nonsectarian prayers are of course unconstitutional too.”
AHA then demanded that the school “terminate this and any similar illegal activity immediately,” citing that “[t]he school may be sued in federal court for injunctive, declaratory, and monetary relief.”
However, Principal Matt Vollman told the Southern Illinoisan that he has never received a complaint about the prayers in the many years that they have been included in the ceremony.
“I have never had one person come to me by phone, in person or anonymously to say they were unhappy with prayer at graduation,” he stated.
Vollman said that school officials were “in the process of investigating the validity of the claims made in the email.”
AHA stated that if officials do not respond within two weeks, they will consider moving forward with a lawsuit.
Last October, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving an eighth grader in New York that was barred from asking God to bless her classmates during middle school graduation. In her address, the girl—only identified as A.M. since she is a minor—desired to ask that God would bless those gathered, quoting a Biblical passage from Numbers 6:24-26.
Both the U.S. District Court and Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the student, stating that the school district had “legitimate pedagogical concerns” in seeking not to violate the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.
The various circuit courts have been split on the issue of religious speech, including prayers, at graduations. The Eleventh Circuit “has held that a student’s graduation speech under these circumstances constitutes private speech, and that religious views expressed in the speech do not violate the Establishment Clause,” but the Second, Ninth and Tenth Circuits have ruled otherwise. The Establishment Clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”