Student challenges graduation prayer

tflach@thestate.com May 31, 2012 

A new alumnus of Irmo High School is seeking to stop students from authorizing and offering prayer at future graduations.

Supported by a Wisconsin legal foundation, Matthew “Max” Nielson is challenging a practice that occurred at the ceremony Wednesday over his objection.

His lawsuit argues that a school-sponsored ballot that enabled a student to deliver an invocation during the ceremony violates separation of church and state.

Lexington-Richland 5 school officials say a majority of the 412 graduates favored a prayer in a voluntary poll – and that should be OK.

“I do not believe freedom of religion should be interpreted as requiring freedom from religion within the public schools,” superintendent Stephen Hefner said. “The decision to offer a prayer at our graduations was initiated by and was offered by students, who in so doing were exercising their freedom of religion.”

But in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, Nielson contends the method used is improper.

Nielson said he urged school officials to replace the invocation with a moment of silence, as is done in classrooms daily, to permit individual prayer or reflection. The invocation amounts to “an endorsement of religion,” he said.

Nielson said he began questioning the invocation about two weeks ago. When the prayer occurred, “I wasn’t part of that section of my graduation, and it hurt,” he said in an interview.

A poll in classrooms under the supervision of teachers is a “mechanism that turns the school into a forum for religious debate and empowers the student body majority to subject students of minority views to constitutionally improper messages,” his lawsuit said.

Nielson, 18, describes himself as “religiously unaffiliated” in the lawsuit, brought with assistance of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, of which he is a member.

The student poll favoring the invocation was 252-53, with the remainder either abstaining or absent, Lexington-Richland 5 spokesman Buddy Price said.

The lawsuit came after Hefner and school leaders rejected Nielson’s request to halt the student-led invocation, a practice that has not been overturned in court, as long as a student is doing it.

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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