The debate over school prayer has reared its head in Arkansas this week.
Two sixth grade graduations were cancelled in Riverside Unified School District after a parent protested against a prayer that was to be recited during the ceremony.
“Those campuses for the last several years had discussed whether we should continue with sixth grade graduation or not,” Tommy Knight, the superintendent of the Riverside School District told Fox News. “The controversy arose out of this one. When it came to my attention, the board and I decided to go ahead and discontinue sixth grade graduations.”
The school received a letter from Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin’s nonprofit with a mission to educate the public “on matters relating to nontheism, and to promote the constitutional principle of separation between church and state.”
A group of Arkansas freethinkers called the cancellation “selfish.”
“The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is disappointed that Riverside school cancelled its graduation simply because the school couldn’t sponsor a prayer,” Anne Orsi, a member of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, told TakePart. “We think that the students are the big losers in this astonishing display of religious selfishness on the part of the school’s administration. There is absolutely no reason the graduation ceremony cannot continue without forcing the attendees to submit to a public prayer. There is no reason to punish these children.”
School prayer and religion in public schools remains a hot button issue that has resulting in numerous court cases. Many schools throughout the country are trying to delicately deal with religion during upcoming graduation activities.
In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools cannot sponsor prayer at graduation ceremonies, citing a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. But students can express themselves during graduation and that might include prayer.
In Georgia, a school was recently forced to stop saying prayers or playing songs with religious references at graduation ceremonies after the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a warning letter.
“Public schools should not be seeking out songs that exclude students and create a divisive environment,” FFRF attorney Andrew Seidelan wrote in the letter.
In Kentucky, the Lincoln County High School principal is trying to find middle ground on the prayer front. Traditionally, the school’s graduating class has had student-led prayer during the ceremony. But, to do so, graduating students had to okay the prayer with a unanimous vote. This year, six students said they did not want the prayer. It has since been cancelled.
Earlier this month, a former Navy chaplain offered a $1,000 reward to any student who says a prayer during a graduation ceremony at a school in St. Johns County, Florida.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee told TakePart that there is a current fear of prayer in this country.
“How very sad that our culture is collapsing under the weight of religious intolerance that it is fearful of a prayer,” he said. “Prayers are said in Congress, at presidential inaugurations, and by chaplains in our military. To forbid a prayer at a school activity because one person objects is just sad. Can one person protest our accommodating Muslim food and prayers at Gitmo and get that stopped?”
In Lake City, Arkansas, parents are meeting Thursday night to decide on a church that will host a private graduation ceremony for Christian students who attend the public school.
This thrills Arkansas school prayer supporters.
“I am personally definitely a proponent of prayer, even prayer in school. I believe guiding our children to seek a relationship with God is the ultimate in community service,” Laurie Lee, a conservative activist in Arkansas, told TakePart. “What inspires me most, is how these parents are handling the situation. It's wonderful that they are taking what could have been a very disappointing event and it is evolving into a celebration based on faith and inclusion for all in the community.”
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com