Students, School at Odds Over Graduation Prayers

A dispute has developed between the members of the senior class of Washington High School and administrators over whether prayers should be said at the start and at the end of the school's graduation ceremony.

Several seniors say they feel the inclusion of prayer during the ceremony is unconstitutional. They've taken their argument to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has asked school officials to urge an end to the practice.

"Graduation is a time for our class to feel unified and to have them feel divided by prayer is sad, because not everyone in our class believes the same thing and prays the same way," said valedictorian Natasha Appenheimer. "It's not fair to have one prayer represent all of us."

School Board Member Christi Webb said prayers have been said at graduation every year since her own graduation in 1965. She wouldn't say if the district would reconsider.

"Our superintendent has contacted our lawyer and we believe that we are on firm legal ground and he will make a statement at the school board meeting Monday night," she said.

The students took their concerns to schools Superintendent Lee Edwards and offered several alternatives, including the addition of a moment of silence in place of the Christian-based prayers. Appenheimer said he wasn't responsive to their questions or suggestions.

Edwards was out of town and unavailable for comment Friday.

Jane Whicher, a lawyer from the ACLU, has written to Edwards asking him to reconsider having the prayers. She cited two Supreme Court cases which she says forbid prayers at high school graduations.

"This is a completely unjustified position on the superintendent's part and it violates the rights of students and parents," Whicher said. "The decision about religious activities and religious upbringing belongs in families, not in schools."

Some community residents are taking differing views on the issue.

"It's not a religious issue whatsoever," said Muhammad Yunus, father of a Washington senior. "It is an issue of tolerance and sensitivity."

Webb said when she graduated, she had friends of other faiths who did not have a problem with the prayers.