Sometimes being ahead of the curve is a good thing.
Two weeks ago, faced with the possibility of a lawsuit challenging a decades-old tradition of opening school board meetings with a prayer led by a community pastor, the Stevensville School Board quietly ended the practice.
This past Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that student-led prayers at a school-sponsored event—in this case, a Texas high school football game—were unconstitutional and violated the separation between church and state provided in the First Amendment.
According to Alan Abrahamson of Stevensville, the ruling simply affirms a basic Constitutional right. “As I read history, the greatest problems in the world have come when governments have represented religions,” he says. “We have said this is not going to happen here. Thomas Jefferson wrote of the ‘wall of separation’ in 1803 and that wall has preserved this country.”
Abrahamson first ran up against the strong fundamentalist measure of the Stevensville community two years ago when his older stepdaughter was to graduate from Stevensville High School. As part of the ceremony, one student intended to present a prayer.
“I was concerned because I believed that prayer excluded those who did not share the same beliefs,” Abrahamson, who is Jewish, says. “I asked to address the school board about the graduation.”
Abrahamson remembers being the only person opposing the plan in a roomful of what he describes as “200 evangelical Christians.” The board opened the meeting with its usual request for a prayer. That prayer was led by former school board member Kelly McCormick who “sounded a call to Christian battle.”
At the time, Abrahamson offered two proposals—a separate, non-mandatory religious service before graduation or a moment of silence in lieu of prayer at graduation.
“I was hooted at. People shouted ‘Shame on you.’ I was stunned at the names I was called,” Abrahamson remembers. “If that is how good, God-fearing Christians behave, give me atheists anytime.”
The board’s eventual decision was that there would not be a prayer at the graduation. Instead, the class valedictorian made her public address into a prayer, beginning her comments with “Dear God,” and ending with “Amen.”
“I believe that as a speaker, exercising her right to free speech, what she did was allowable and appropriate,” Abrahamson says. “I had no problem with it.“
Abrahamson, who is an attorney, had contacted an ACLU about his concerns at that time. The matter was on hold for more than a year. Then, two weeks ago, Abrahamson received a call to ask if he still wanted to pursue the issue.
“I would have ignored the opening prayer at school board meetings if it had not been used as a weapon against me,” Abrahamson says. “After I got home the night of the board meeting, cars drove up and down our road and I was a little nervous.”
Less than a week later, Abrahamson received a call from Dan DePauw, present chairman of the Stevensville School Board. DePauw said the prayer to open the meetings was being abandoned “because there have been new court rulings that make it clear that the practice is unconstitutional.” DePauw called Abrahamson back after the meeting to say the decision had been carried out.
“Next week the Supreme Court will decide whether or not to hear a case asking if a valedictorian can give a prayer at graduation,” Abrahamson says. “I believe they can as an exercise of free speech, but we’ll have to wait to see what happens.”
Around the United States there was mixed reaction to the most recent Supreme Court ruling. The case had been brought by a Mormon family and a Catholic family who objected to the evangelical, proselytizing content of the prayers. Presidential candidate and Texas Governor George W. Bush said he was “disappointed” by the ruling.
Abrahamson believes it was the right decision. “It was unconstitutional,” he says. “It excluded other religions. The practitioners of those religions were the ones who objected.”