When Franklin County school board members agreed to ban prayer at all school functions last week, they were following precedents set at other North Carolina public schools when this year’s seniors were still in elementary school.
The decision was an example, school board attorney Boyd Sturges said, of the continuing reach of Raleigh into ever more distant suburbs.
Board members say they feel the rights of a majority of students who welcome prayer are being trampled by a single complaint. The ACLU counters that the law is clear and the rights of religious minorities must be protected.
Others see the controversy as a predictable culture clash as the Raleigh suburbs sprawl ever farther north.
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“We’ve got growing pains between how it was and how it will be,” Sturges said.
The prayer that sparked the debate was during a Franklinton High School academic awards ceremony May 15. A parent complained about the student-led invocation that closed with “in Jesus’ name, amen,” repeated by the audience.
According to the ensuing letter from the American Civil Liberties Union on May 22, audience members felt “coerced to participate.”
After receiving the complaint, the North Carolina ACLU requested a ban of prayer from all school functions before the school’s graduation ceremony June 9. Their letter to the school board, requesting a decision no later than May 29, provided examples of Supreme Court case law ruling prayer at graduation ceremonies unconstitutional.
Government-run schools sponsoring prayer at a major life event which students are required to attend amounts to religious discrimination, Chris Brook, the North Carolina ACLU legal director, told the board at their emergency meeting last Tuesday.
The law is “very, very clear” on school-sponsored prayer, Brook said. He also pointed to a 2007 case of prayer in a Forsyth County government meeting that went to court and ended in defeat, with the county required to cover the ACLU’s hefty legal fees.
“Our preference is to resolve this without need for litigation,” Brook said.About an hour’s drive north of Raleigh past Rolesville, Wake Forest and a whole lot of farmland, Franklin County has begun to see the same growth as its neighbors to the south.
The county is essentially split in half by the development, Sturges said, with the bulk of the major growth in the southern portion, contrasted with a still largely rural northern half.
Families who have been here for generations are starting to be matched in numbers by transplants. Longtime residents can see the culture change, said Diana Barden, Franklinton High School PTSA president.
“We’re a little county that has lived in splendid isolation,” Sturges said. “Then I-540 comes along.”
Focus on religious rights
Before this month’s complaint, commencement ceremony prayer complaints have been rare, with none in at least six years, Brook said. Complaints about prayer in government meetings and distribution of religious materials in schools are more common.
The Franklin County school board discussed the ACLU’s request for a ban for 30 minutes in closed session at their emergency meeting Tuesday before returning for their public announcement.
Before and after the vote, board members voiced dismay and disapproval.
“It infringes on the rights of many who do believe prayer is vital to existence,” said school board member Bobbie Richardson, who said she voted for the ban “under duress” because of her duty to the Constitution.
Others called the issue a distraction from more important issues.
“I think it’s a shame we have to be here to deal with this when there are monumental issues we have to face going forward,” board member Bernard Hall said. “Priorities need to take place. We need to be focusing on things that help students get to graduation.”
Word of the prayer ban is passing slowly around Franklinton High School.
“I’m going to be sad to see it go,” Barden said. “I think it adds a solemn, serious feel to whatever’s getting ready to happen. Asking for a blessing is never a bad thing.”
The previously scheduled prayer is off the agenda at this Saturday’s graduation, but a baccalaureate graduation program today will feature a prayer, Barden said, since the event is voluntary and sponsored by the PTSA. She feels it’s fitting.
“I’m sure it’s taken a lot of prayer on behalf of the parents and the students both,” Barden said, “to get them through their teen years up to graduation.”
A parent had commented earlier this semester on a prayer at an honor society induction ceremony, Barden said, asking whether it would continue to be a problem in the future.
“I guess we’ve made it to the future,” Barden said.