UGA holds official commencements three times per year: one in the fall, one in the spring, and one in the summer. Since the university’s creation, each of these ceremonies have been opened with a prayer and many have closed with a benediction. The prayers are very clearly Christian in nature, littered with references to “God” and“ Almighty Father”, as well as concluding with “Amen”.
The most recent prayer that I witnessed was given by a local preacher and took place on December 16th, 2011. This prayer not only contained the aforementioned three phrases, but opened with a reading of Pslams, a book of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as well as the Islamic Zabur. In case there was any question which god was being prayed to, the preacher delivering the prayer went on to say, “You yourself know what it is like to sacrifice and suffer for the joy of accomplishing that which seemed impossible”, a very clear and deliberate reference to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ by the Christian god.
The baseline legislation for government-endorsed religion is the ever-popular Establishment Clause, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. This simple idea has been expounded over the years in order to limit what government agencies and institutions , such as publicly-funded schools like UGA, may do with regard to endorsing religion. The following court cases show the limitations placed upon the government with regard to prayer specifically:
Doe v. Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist., 168 F.3d 806, 816 (5th Cir. Tex. 1999):
The deliverance of prayers "alter dramatically the tenor of the ceremony, shifting its focus … away from the students and the secular purpose of the graduation ceremony to the religious content of the speaker's prayers."
Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992)
"If citizens are subjected to state-sponsored religious exercises, the State disavows its own duty to guard and respect that sphere of inviolable conscience and belief which is the mark of a free people."
Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S., at 688 (1984)
School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents "that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community."
West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943)
"The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts."
Jager v. Douglas County Sch. Dist., 862 F.2d 825 (11th Cir. 1989)
"The state cannot employ a religious means to serve otherwise legitimate secular interests"
Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962)
“When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain…. The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its 'unhallowed perversion' by a civil magistrate.”
In no uncertain terms, the Supreme Court has ruled the prayer in school is simply against the First Amendment. One could certainly make the argument that school prayer is “offensive”, “exclusionary”, or “unnecessary”, but the fact remains that such prayer is downright illegal. Indeed, any public school or university which holds a prayer as part of the official proceedings of any event is in violation of the Constitution itself.
With the cases of Ms. Jessica Ahlquist and Mr. Damon Fowler still fresh on my mind, I decided to lead a group of UGA students to challenge UGA’s commencement prayer tradition in the summer of 2011. We contacted the administration of the school and laid out our case from a strictly legal standpoint, leaving any emotion or opinions out of the picture. Despite decades of legal precedent, UGA’s administration was simply unwilling to change their policies, citing the “non-sectarian” and “voluntary” nature of the prayers, two completely irrational and fallacious excuses. The message to myself and other graduates-to-be was clearly laid out: if you don’t like praying, don’t go to your graduation.
After being stonewalled by the leaders of our school, we decided to seek the help of the FFRF and the SSA. Early in 2012, the FFRF wrote to UGA with an official complaint regarding the ceremony I had attended. Only time will tell whether the administration has come to its senses regarding the illegality of their actions, but the fight against religious oppression is not limited to my Alma mater.
In schools across our nation, the religious freedom of millions of students is being continuously violated and it is up to each of us to put an end to it. But what can we as citizens do? Write to school administration and let them know that they are in violation of the law. Write to your local SSA or FFRF representative and inform them of the situation. Above all else, do not be complacent of oppression: if we lack the courage to stand up for what is right, we condemn ourselves and future generations to an environment of ignorance and intolerance. School prayer must be stopped not because it is offensive or exclusionary, but because it violates our rights as human beings to believe what we wish to believe and to be free from the beliefs of others.