Massachusetts School District Puts End to Prayer at School-Sponsored Events Following Complaint From Atheist Group

Photo Credit: Zelman Menash

CANTON, Mass. — A Massachusetts school district has decided to no longer allow prayers at graduation ceremonies or other school-sponsored events following receipt of a complaint from one of the nation’s most conspicuous professing atheist groups.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) recently sent a letter to the superintendent of Canton Public Schools after learning that John Tomilio of the Congregational Church of Canton delivered a prayer at this year’s graduation ceremony.

According to the correspondence, Tomilio asked the “holy, loving and most gracious God” to bless the students, and that they would “serve others in service of [Him], seeing the entirety of their lives as a ministry of love, truth, courage and reconciliation.”

“Wherever their future education and vocations lead them, may they embody a spirit of compassion, acceptance, and affinity for all that is good, for all that is just, and for all that gives life,” he prayed.

Tomilio closed his prayer to “the Creator of all” with the request for a “joyous amen” from the audience.

FFRF argued in its letter to the school district that the Supreme Court has ruled that high school graduations must be kept secular in nature to avoid alienating students with differing beliefs.

“The courts have continually reaffirmed that the rights of minorities are protected by the Constitution. It makes no difference how many students or families want prayer at the graduation ceremony,” contended attorney Colin McNamara. “School officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, clergy or any other invited guest to give any type of prayer, invocation or benediction at a school function.”

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“The district has a duty to refrain from endorsing religion. By scheduling prayers at graduation, the district abridges that duty and alienates the 38% of Americans born after 1987 who are not religious,” he wrote.

Read the letter in full here.

Superintendent Jennifer Fischer-Mueller has now responded to the correspondence, advising FFRF that prayers will no longer be allowed at any school-sponsored events within the Canton school district.

“I am writing to confirm that steps have been taken to ensure that there will be no prayers or religious rituals as part of any school ceremony (e.g. graduation) or any other school sponsored event,” she wrote. “Thank you for bringing the issue to my attention.”

Read Fischer-Mueller’s response here.

FFRF applauded the outcome of the matter, as Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor remarked in a statement, “Keeping schools secular is part of our core mission.”

As previously reported, the first textbook used in the American colonies even before the nation’s founding, “The New England Primer,” was largely focused on the Scriptures, and was stated to be popular in public and private schools alike until approximately the early 1900’s. It used mostly the King James Bible as reference, and spoke much about sin, salvation and proper behavior.

“Save me, O God, from evil all this day long, and let me love and serve Thee forever, for the sake of Jesus Christ, Thy Son,” it read.

Noah Webster’s famous “Blue Back Speller” also referenced Christianity, including God-centered statements in reading lessons such as “The preacher is to preach the gospel,” “Blasphemy is contemptuous treatment of God,” and “We do not like to see our own sins.” Webster, a schoolmaster, is known as the “father of American education” and strongly advocated teaching children the Scriptures. Many of the Founders’ children are stated to have learned to read from the primer.

View sample pages from Webster’s Blue Back Speller here.

“In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed,” Webster once stated. “No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.”

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