High School Terminates Graduation Prayer After Parent Complains Student Invoked Jesus Christ

Pottsgrove High School
Graduates of Pottsgrove High School throw their graduation caps in the air in this picture posted to Facebook on June 13, 2015. |

A Pennsylvania public high school has abolished its traditional prayer at graduation after a complaint was lodged against last year's ceremony.

Pottsgrove High School decided last year to do away with prayer and benediction at its graduation ceremonies because a concern was raised that the school's prayer tradition was too heavily focused on the Christian faith.

Although the decision was made last year, The Mercury reports that the school's decision to do way with invocation didn't become widely known until a debate heated up on Facebook last Thursday.

School administrators decided to end the prayer tradition after a complaint was raised about how a student speaker specifically invoked Jesus Christ during his comments at last year's graduation.

"Last year's was much more specifically religious than anything I had heard at Pottsgrove before," Superintendent Shellie Feola told The Mercury. "I myself was kind of taken aback by the prayer."

"Apparently, it struck a chord with someone who was at the ceremony and it was reported to me that there was a complaint," she said.

Feola explained that although she had concerns that the school's prayer tradition might be in violation of case law pertaining to students' First Amendment rights at public school functions, administrators continued to allow prayer at the school graduation until a complaint was raised.

"To be honest, I've always thought that Pottsgrove was unique in still having prayer at public graduation ceremonies and that not many other schools in Montgomery County still do it," Feola said.

After the complaint was filed about last year's invocation, Feola consulted with the school district's attorney, Solicitor Marc Davis.

Davis advised that a 2000 ruling in California determines that the school's prayer tradition is illegal, since the graduation is a government-sponsored event that cannot condone specific religious activity.

"After we researched it, I informed the board in August that we could no longer allow the invocation and benediction. There was some internal discussion on the board and that was the end of it, I thought," Feola said. "The board certainly had the ability to discuss it in public or to direct the administration to write a policy it could adopt, but that did not happen."

The aforementioned Facebook debate, which sparked public attention to the school's decision to do away with prayer at graduations, was mostly between current and former members of the school board.

"This is very disappointing to me too," board member Bill Parker wrote. "While the district, due to case law, cannot direct that there be a prayer as part of the ceremony, we can also not violate freedom of speech."

School Board President Rick Rabinowitz responded by arguing that "parents and students of other religions do not come to graduation to attend a Christian religious service."

"They are there to celebrate the accomplishments of their students," Rabinowitz wrote. "The harm is that they feel intimidated at speaking out against this practice and that they are not afforded the same opportunity. The harm is that they are made uncomfortable or are even offended on one of the most special days of their lives. Free speech, as you know, has limits."

Justin Valentine, a former school board president who is also a minister at Kingdom Life Church, started the Facebook discussion when he posted on the Pottsgrove Discussion Group Facebook page a link to an article about an Ohio valedictorian who defied an atheist group by reciting the Lord's Prayer during his graduation speech.

Valentine's post was later removed by Rabinowitz, who claimed that the post was meant to inspire Pottsgrove Christian students to say a prayer at graduation. Valentine then accused Rabinowitz of trying to suppress discussion.

"I have people in the same boat in favor but afraid to speak out. Staff and community members," Valentine wrote. "Those who I know support have more to lose seeing they have no recourse over the reigning point of view. Let's use the real numbers thousands of students graduated with thousands in attendance. One complaint, real numbers no spin."

Rabinowitz confirmed to local news station Fox 29 that the person who complained last year was a parent, not a student.

"The law does not allow the school to provide a program prayer in school related ceremonies," Rabinowitz asserted.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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