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Case Study: Commencement Prayer Protests

Recently, a number of student groups have sought to overturn religious invocations at graduation ceremonies. While they have met with mixed success, there are a number of advantages to attempting it: it's a fairly visible way to oppose religious privilege in public life, it attracts media attention on and off campus, and one can find a broad range of support for it in the community (albeit mixed with some hostility).

This guide presents a few case studies of attempts to remove commencement prayers, with an explication of the methods used, the results obtained, and the lessons learned. If you want to do something similar at your school, here are a few places you can go to for help and advice:

University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)

What Happened?: A measure to remove prayer from commencement was researched and discussed by the student senate for three years before being passed in 2009 by a margin of 42-14 (including unanimous support from student senators). However, University President Dan Mote decided to overrule the Senate's decision; although he didn't mandate prayers, he prevented the Senate from eliminating them. He cited a number of calls and emails he received asking for reinstatement, and further claimed that the margin of the vote was too narrow to overturn a long-standing tradition.

Critics of Mote claimed that the pressure largely came from outside, whereas most of the student body supported the decision to remove prayer. They further noted that the President's decision was likely motivated by a desire to bolster the University's image in the wake of a controversial Senate decision to host a pornographic film on campus. Two student senators planned a rally to protest the veto, which would feature 150-300 students wearing white t-shirts indicating their personal (non-)religious beliefs. They also planned to have attendees sign a large scroll asking for the prayer to be removed. However, the protest was canceled due to inclement weather; the graduation prayer was written jointly by the school's chaplains to be as inclusive as possible.

How Did They Do It?: The resolution before the Senate had been a long time coming, and was debated on campus long before coming to a vote. The protest rally was organized through a Facebook group.

What Arguments Were Used?: None of UMD's peer institutions had a commencement prayer; a moment of silence would be more inclusive and serve the same solemnizing function; even non-denominational prayer feels Christian to those in a Christian-dominated society; removing prayer does not denigrate religion; although the delivery of the prayer rotated amongst chaplains, there was never an opportunity to represent a secular humanist or atheistic point of view; prayer brought an unnecessarily solemn tone to what should have been a celebration.

Moral: Although the prayer remained intact, one can't really blame the students for not trying. They clearly had support from a large section of campus, especially the student body. Their significant opposition came from some of the faculty, as well as off-campus pressure. These groups were able to get the President to reverse the Senate's decision by flooding his office with phone calls and e-mails.

Clearly, then. the lesson is that one can't rest on one's laurels - momentary gains need to be solidified. Even before the vote to remove the invocation, the very idea of it was made more controversial because of a previous campus controversy. In such an environment, students need to be aware that administrators and outsiders will be much more sensitive to their efforts, and more resistant to change. The Senate vote should have been followed by a major effort to keep the new policy intact, before it could be vetoed, an effort which could have included petitions, letter-writing, or phonebanking. The organizers of the demonstration were certainly cognizant of their predicament; knowing how difficult it would be to get the President to change his mind (again), and trying to avoid the label of 'jesus-hating liberals' that the media wanted to pin on them, they tried to put on a diversity rally rather than an angry or aggressive protest.

What makes this case a little unusual is that the target of the campaign shifted halfway through. Although it was initially very useful and totally justified to pass this through the Senate, the President's consideration of a veto should have made him the target for the campaign; indeed, the campaign to keep the prayer only became significant when it passed to the President, who became their target. Again, though, this was a fairly unprecedented move by the President, and not something the activists would have likely anticipated.

Saddleback College (Mission Viejo, California)

What Happened?: Ashley Mockett decided to start a Free-Thinker's club at Saddleback after witnessing a religious tirade from a school board member at a scholarship dinner. She found that, although Prof. Karla Westphal had gotten the Associated Student Government, the Academic Senate (faculty at Saddleback), and the Statewide Academic Senate to recommend a moment of silence instead of a commencement prayer, the school board decided to ignore them. Westphal eventually was able to get Americans United to write the board a letter explaining the prayer's unconstitutionality, which was also ignored, and in fact led to the tirade Mockett witnessed. This diatribe led many donors to transfer their donations from the school to other student funds.

In the face of a legal challenge, the school board chose to hire a lawyer. Before voting to hire counsel, Mockett and Westphal spoke before the board and urged them to simply replace the prayer with a moment of silence; they voted to hire a lawyer anyway. Buoyed by widespread campus support, the student government passed a resolution placing it in charge of planning the scholarship ceremony, opposing the religious invocationa and promoting the alternative of a moment of silence.

How Did They Do It?: Putting the issue before student government and related academic bodies built support, and put the school board on the defensive. Although they were unable to stop the school board from hiring counsel, getting the AU to send a letter prevented the board from claiming ignorance.

What Arguments Were Used?: Donors who value the seperation of state and church will withdraw support if a religious invocation is in place; a moment of silence is an acceptable alternative; hiring legal counsel to research this issue is costly and distracting.

Moral: Having widespread support, and little organized opposition (outside of the school board), clearly helped a lot. The student government's vote to take over the scholarship ceremony quickly and easily wrapped up the debate, preventing the administration from backpedaling (see above) or wiggling around the rules (see below). Furthermore, this campaign, in a climate slanted against an unpopular school board, really drew attention to the nonreligious community's interests and bolstered its chances of success.

Southeastern High School (Chillicote, Ohio)

What Happened?: Jacob Davis, a Wiccan, found the religious invocation offered at graduation every year was divisive and unnecessary. After starting a petition and writing a letter to the editor, Jacob met with his principal, who explained that keeping the prayer was something the community supported. Jacob's letter received a lot of online attention, and he was directed by one commentator to the Circle Sanctuary (a pagan civil rights group), who directed him to Americans United.

After the school received a letter from AU, the school superintendent canceled clergy-led prayers at commencement. Instead, two students were selected to give opening and closing remarks. Both students (who happened to be the children of school board members) used the opportunity to lead prayers.

How Did He Do It?: Jacob began by circulating a petition in his social studies class, and ultimately obtained signatures from more than half of the senior class. He then wrote his letter to the editor, and used that and the petition to present his case to school administration. The letter from AU took the matter out of the principal's hands; from there, the school board decided to cancel the invocation.

What Arguments Were Used?: The Supreme Court's 1992 decision in Lee v. Weisman precludes public schools from leading public prayers at graduation; a majority of seniors opposed the invocation.

Moral: True, this case happened at a high school, and thus the legal issues involved are different than they are for college students. Nonetheless, there are some critical thigns to take away from this.

Clearly, Jacob prepared his campaign well. Leveraging both the petition and the letter to the editor at the meeting with his principal was a great move, as the administration was forced to acknowledge the issue and could not brush it off. The letter from AU worked to a degree; while it made the school board cancel the invocation, it pushed the issue into the hands of the school district, beyond Jacob's range of influence. The school board's solution looked like a compromise, and thus had Jacob detected the clear subterfuge in their strategy he would have found it more difficult to build support outside of his high school.

As in the University of Maryland case, then, a campaign needs to keep the pressure on, even if victory seems assured. The student-led prayers were almost certainly unconstitutional; even if they weren't encouraged to lead them by school officials (which is doubtful), the school officials were negligent in their duty to prevent religion from being foisted upon the audience. Luckily, it looks as if Jacob will be working with the school board to amend their practices.

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