[orthodox-synod] Prayer in Schools
- Prayer and Punishment
Crowd Makes God Part of Graduation; Teen Protester Is Shut Out of
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 1999; Page A01
It started with a loud, clear voice, a man's voice. And it spread quickly
through the hall, picking up the tenors of teenage boys, whispers of young
girls and throaty voices of grandmothers. With each word, it grew more
"Our Father, who art in Heaven . . . " The defiant group, thousands strong,
ignored a school ban on prayer and insisted that God be part of a Calvert
County high school graduation ceremony Wednesday night.
A student who had successfully appealed for a moment of silence, rather than
a formal prayer, walked out in protest. When he tried to return to the
ceremony to collect his diploma, he was detained in a squad car and
threatened with arrest by state police. School officials -- saying they
feared he might disrupt the school-sponsored cruise around Baltimore
Harbor -- barred him from the graduation party for which he'd already bought
"This is a churchgoing community, and no one in Annapolis or Washington,
D.C., is going to tell us when and where we can pray," said County
Commissioners President Linda L. Kelley (R-Owings), who joined in the
recitation of the Lord's Prayer. "The school administrators did the legal
thing and complied with the law. But the audience took this one over."
An official for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said
yesterday that an emotional majority trampled over the lone teenage boy and
"A student was arrested because he disagreed with the majority and he tried
to address that in a responsible way," said Suzanne Smith, of the ACLU,
adding that she considered the fact that police detained Nick Becker, 18,
equivalent to arrest. No charges have been filed against Becker although
state police Lt. George McKeon said yesterday a complaint might still be
"The real loser here is the Constitution and the right of people to express
dissent," Smith said, adding that the ACLU is investigating the incident.
"I'm appalled by this."
Calvert County, a rural peninsula south of Washington, is a politically
conservative place where the newly acquainted frequently ask, "Where do you
go to church?" and not, "Do you go to church?"
Prayer had been a part of graduation ceremonies at Northern High School for
several years, apparently without objection. This year, Julie Schenk, 17,
planned to deliver an invocation at Wednesday evening's commencement until
Becker, her 18-year-old classmate, objected.
He said that prayer didn't belong in a public ceremony. Becker is well-known
at school for his independent streak. In his junior year, he was forced by
school officials to wash his hair in a sink because he came to school with
his brown hair sculpted into "Liberty spikes" that resemble the Statue of
Liberty's crown. Last fall, he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance
and was singled out for disciplinary action until the ACLU intervened on his
behalf. Becker plans to attend the University of Maryland-Baltimore County
in the fall to study film.
In this latest incident, the ACLU and the state attorney general's office
sided with Becker and advised Calvert officials to drop the prayer because
it violated the constitutional separation of church and state.
As a compromise, Schenk agreed to change her prayer to a "time for
reflection" that did not mention God. When she asked for 30 seconds of
silence and the audience of about 4,000 rose, a loud male voice began, "Our
Father, who art in heaven . . . "
"It started across the hall, and it picked up steam and went around the
room," Kelley said, estimating that half the people in the Equestrian Center
in Prince George's County joined in. "You could almost hear this thing
travel. It just spread."
Becker quickly realized what was happening. "There was a kid behind me
saying it real loud, and even the people on the stage were saying it -- even
the commissioners," said Becker, who turned and quickly walked to a nearby
exit. Once outside, he felt angry and upset.
When Becker tried to go back inside through the front door to get a friend,
he was told by police he could not reenter. Calvert County school policy
bars any student who leaves a school event from returning. Becker walked
around the building and tried to get in through a side door and was blocked
by police again.
"I told the cop I'm getting my diploma," Becker said. "He said, 'You're not
going back in.' He walked me over to the car, put me in the front of the
patrol car and said he was going to give me a citation for failing to obey a
McKeon said Becker was "extremely upset" and shouldn't have been allowed to
reenter. "We thought it was the best course of action," McKeon said. "We
didn't want [him] to disrupt the ceremony."
Becker was released to his parents, who had come outside by that point,
McKeon said. School officials gave Becker his diploma and the family went
home. Becker was barred from a post-graduation boat cruise for which he had
paid $45. Superintendent James R. Hook also said Becker could not
participate in the party because he did not take part in the graduation
ceremony. Hook said his money will be refunded.
Hook said he was disturbed by the spontaneous prayer and the turn of events.
"A moment of silence should have been respected," Hook said. "It shows
disrespect for the young lady who asked for silence and for the young man
who requested [that the prayer] not be done."
Other community leaders gave direct or subtle support. "It was the right
thing to do," said Commissioner David F. Hale (R-Owings), who said the
prayer. "We cannot condone breaking the laws, but this was participating in
an ongoing prayer. It was a personal choice."
And while Northern High School Principal George Miller said he had to follow
Hook's orders, "quite frankly, I'd like to include the invocation."
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