Houston County school system receives complaint regarding graduation prayer

cgrant@macon.comJune 4, 2012 

A national nonprofit group promoting the separation of church and state is calling for changes in the Houston County school system following events at Veterans High School’s inaugural graduation ceremony.

In a letter addressed Monday to Superintendent Robin Hines, attorney Andrew Seidel writes that the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been informed a prayer was given at graduation and “that the ceremony included an overtly sectarian musical performance and a speech that resembled a religious sermon, which (Hines) in (his) official capacity as Superintendent delivered.”

The letter from the Madison, Wis.-based organization goes on to request the district take immediate action to ensure future graduation ceremonies do not include religious prayers or musical performances, stating it is unlawful for school-sponsored events to include prayer and citing numerous Supreme Court decisions.

Hines declined to comment when reached by phone Monday but said to his knowledge this was the first such complaint the district had received.

The letter was prompted by a report filed by Wes Bryant, of Pittsboro, N.C., who attended the ceremony to see his niece graduate.

Bryant, who has served 14 years in the military and recently returned from Afghanistan, said this was the first time he had made a report such as this as a civilian. He has made similar complaints in his military capacity.

“It’s really angering to come back and be exposed to that -- to be expected to be a Christian wherever I’m at and not have your beliefs or lack of belief honored in your community,” said Bryant, an atheist, when reached by phone Monday. “(Christianity) is the majority religion, we know that, but it is nonetheless honoring one religion at a public school forum.”

The May 26 graduation, which was the first for the school since it opened in 2010, included a prayer and song -- “Find Your Wings” by gospel singer Mark Harris -- and a speech in which Hines encouraged students to live life with a strong faith in God, Bryant said.

He said while he wouldn’t hold anything against the students who were allowed or asked to sing a religious song or give a prayer, the school district should know better.

“It alienates everyone else that doesn’t believe the same way, and it does send a message from the school, which does in some way represent the government,” he said.

Bryant sent a letter to Hines the day after the graduation and re-sent the e-mail Wednesday, asking that the superintendent take action by making sure religion is kept out of future official ceremonies, as well as issuing a statement of apology to families, students and the community.

If he receives no response within a few weeks, Bryant said he will go to the next level -- the state Department of Education.

Seidel, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the issue of prayer at school-sponsored events is not uncommon during graduation season, noting the letter to Hines was one of several similar notices he sent Monday.

The Veterans High occurrence was specifically concerning though, he said when reached by phone Monday.

“It wasn’t just a prayer,” Seidel said. “It was almost a church service.”

Seidel said the Freedom From Religion Foundation had received only the single complaint about the Houston County graduation.

Many times people are afraid to speak up and feel alienated or that they are alone. The foundation seeks to support those 50 million nonreligious Americans and their constitutional rights, Seidel said.

Hines would not comment when asked if the district planned to make any changes for future events.

To contact writer Caryn Grant, call 256-9751.

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