Second complaint sent to Houston schools following prayer at graduation ceremonies

cgrant@macon.comJune 5, 2012 

Additional reports of prayers and religious musical performances at recent Houston County graduations prompted a second letter of complaint sent Tuesday to Houston County school Superintendent Robin Hines.

The new complaints, regarding the Perry High School graduation ceremony, show “a systematic problem that requires immediate action” within Houston County schools, attorney Andrew Seidel wrote on behalf of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the letter to Hines.

Seidel said the Tuesday letter stemmed from information from several concerned residents and students who reported two prayers were given and two “overtly sectarian” musical songs -- including Christian contemporary artist Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” -- were performed at the event.

The Perry High letter follows another notice the organization sent to the district Monday regarding similar events and an address to graduates described as resembling a religious sermon given by Hines during the Veterans High School graduation.

Both schools’ ceremonies took place May 26.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based nonprofit organization working to protect the separation of church and state.

It is unlawful for public schools to endorse a religion by way of worship songs or prayer at school events, Seidel wrote.

Houston County schools spokeswoman Beth McLaughlin released a statement Tuesday saying district officials are aware of the concern, and the school district’s intent is to “comply with the prevailing law in these matters.”

Hines declined to comment beyond the statement.

Warner Robins resident Sandra Schliekelman said she is offended that people from other states have filed complaints about matters in Houston County.

“This is a country town and people from out of this state are saying this,” she said of the complaints. “They need to stay out of our backyard.”

The initial Freedom From Religion Foundation letter was prompted by a report from a North Carolina man who attended the Veterans High School ceremony.

Seidel said subsequent complaints -- totaling five from four people as of Tuesday afternoon -- to the organization have come from midstate residents.

Daniel McDowell, of Macon, who filed a report to the organization said, it shouldn’t matter whether complaints regarding prayer in public schools come from local residents or those from another state.

“If authorities in this state are ignorant of the law, it doesn’t give them the authority to break the law, no matter how few, if any, people complain,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Telegraph.

Regarding his complaint to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, he said, “I’m not trying to create a divide in the community, just asking that the officials in Houston County, as well as other counties that have prayer during graduation, obey the law.”

Schliekelman, 51, said she’s “all for having prayer in school” and recalls prayers during her five sons’ graduations -- all from Houston County schools. “We cannot take prayer out of graduation. It’s bad enough it’s out of schools.”

Seidel said community members should be standing up for the Constitution and “standing with those brave people who have spoke out,” rather than standing against them.

“Some local citizens have reacted with less than gracious attitudes towards the requirements of the U.S. Constitution, retaliating against the protections of that document with the claim that ‘if non-Christians don’t want to hear it, they can leave,’ ” his letter to Hines reads.

Graduation ceremonies are not truly voluntary events, Seidel wrote, adding that “the Supreme Court has held that forcing a student to compromise their religious beliefs in order to attend the culmination of their academic career is coercive and unconstitutional.”

Seidel said he had not received a response from the school district as of Tuesday afternoon but generally wouldn’t expect to hear back from a complaint within the first week, as many school systems will take the matter to their attorneys.

While Freedom From Religion Foundation will seek to work things out with the district, Seidel said they will not rule out taking legal action if necessary.

To contact writer Caryn Grant, call 256-9751.

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