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California School Does Right Thing -- Cancels Prayer At Graduation

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By Joseph L. Conn

"God Hates Showoffs.”

That was the message on a sign in the crowd at yesterday’s meeting of the Exeter Union (Calif.) High School District.

According to a report in the Visalia Times-Delta, students also held up a second sign that read, “God Says No Prayer.”

The students in a provocative way were asking school trustees to vote against including an official prayer at graduation ceremonies this Friday. The board decided earlier this year to cancel the invocation, and then, under pressure from some in the community, announced that it would allow seniors to vote on the issue.

With the dispute still simmering, those for and against official school prayer showed up at this week’s trustee meeting.

Opponents’ signs reflected pretty good theology as well as respect for the U.S. Constitution.

The Bible is abundantly clear on the demerits of praying in a public place just to “show off.”

Matthew 6: 5-6 quotes Jesus as saying, “When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”

And the Constitution is equally clear on government promotion of religion. The First Amendment bars government intervention in matters of faith. All Americans are free to practice their faith (or follow no spiritual path at all). But no one is free to impose his or her religion on others in the community through government action — and public schools are an arm of the government.

The Supreme Court has ruled that all students should feel welcome at their commencements and, therefore, prayers ought not take place there. The justices have also held that it is unconstitutional to let students vote on whether an invocation should occur at school events. Such an approach constitutes majority rule on matters of religion, and that’s exactly the kind of tyranny and infringement on freedom of conscience that the Founders opposed.

Americans United reminded the Exeter Union school trustees of the law in a letter a few days ago. Other groups did the same.

After consulting legal counsel, school officials did the right thing. The trustees voted 3-0 to have a moment of silence rather than an official prayer.

Superintendent Renee Whitson said told the newspaper that the board “worked very hard and long considering the law.”

She added, “We do have a responsibility to be fair, and we want to have equal respect for all.”

Amen to that.

Religious Right-oriented folks are sure to howl that the vote is an attack on religion. It isn’t. It’s a simple recognition that America is a diverse place, and all of us are entitled to a government that leaves religion alone.

According to the Times-Delta, Trustee Mark Pascoe said he is a person of faith but that his beliefs “aren’t going to be changed one bit if we do a moment of silence.”

Exactly. This way, everyone wins.

It took some persuading but Exeter Union school officials have honored their responsibility to uphold the Constitution, and they have taught their students a great lesson in respect for minority rights and the rule of law. We commend them for it.


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