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When Graduation Speeches Become Graduation Prayers E-mail
Written by Don Byrd   
Thursday, 06 June 2013

By now, you have probably seen or heard about video of the ripped-up graduation speech in South Carolina. There, a student speaker defied the rules and led a prayer instead of giving his approved remarks. I've already reached my yearly quota of graduation prayer rants. But please indulge me just a couple of thoughts to sum up my reaction.

Graduation is a time of celebration for students, families, teachers and school officials. Every student who earns a diploma deserves that moment of recognition for the hard work it represents. At public school commencements, we gather as a community across economic, racial, ethnic and religious divides to celebrate together. Each student and family brings their own story of accomplishment leading to that ceremony. A great triumph of American public education is that regardless of a student's background, a diploma is achievable.

Many Americans of good will fail to comprehend why a public school graduation ceremony cannot be consecrated the way they always denote important moments of life: with devoted Christian prayer. The reason is simple: Every student deserves the chance to experience that moment according to the conscience of their own religious beliefs, and in a way that pays tribute to their own unique journey. No student should be forced to receive a diploma framed by prayer to a God he or she does not worship.

That is not to say we de-value prayer and religion in public school. Just the opposite. We honor the prayerful journey of each student and family when we refrain from grafting the religious view of one on to the celebration of all, even when it is the majority view. In so doing, we respect the role prayer and faith plays for all in attendance, and acknowledge its capacity to define a moment.

When school officials demand of graduation speeches that they not become prayers, they do their best to honor the unique story of every student and family whose achievement is being recognized. When a graduation speaker flaunts those rules and exploits the occasion to deliver a distinctly Christian prayer, he frames with his faith the celebration of all in attendance, regardless of theirs.

School administrators in Liberty, South Carolina say there is little they can do at this point about 18-year-old valedictorian Roy Costner's decision to forgo his prepared remarks at the Liberty High School graduation ceremony in favor of a recitation of The Lord's Prayer. They are probably right. His transgression - which some are calling courageous - was likely more mischievous than it was illegal. Either way, it strikes me as sadly disrespectful - of the occasion, of the others in attendance who do not share his views, and even of the Lord's Prayer itself (though that is another post). What should have been about each graduate's achievement became instead about one graduate's defiance and disregard for the faith of others.

More selfish, perhaps, than courageous.

 
 
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