ANNAPOLIS – Two state lawmakers from Calvert County – where a high school graduation last spring turned into a protest against a prayer ban – proposed a bill to allow student-led prayers at school-sponsored events.
Opponents said the statewide proposal, which affects most organized school activities, including graduations, could be unconstitutional.
The legislation, sponsored by Delegates Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, and George Owings III, D-Calvert, comes in response to a heated protest during last year’s graduation at Northern High School in Owings.
An agnostic student named Nick Becker opposed a student-led formal prayer at graduation, so the prayer was changed to a 30-second period of silence, according to published reports.
Upset at the change, thousands of people in the graduation audience spoke “The Lord’s Prayer” aloud. Becker left the ceremony and was blocked by police from returning to accept his diploma. He also was excluded from the post- graduation party and cruise.
His bill, said O’Donnell, “will make a big difference to people who want to exercise what they perceive as a freedom of religion.”
The Right-To-Pray Coalition, a group of Calvert residents, pushed for the legislation.
“In this day and time with the strifes and stresses of what goes on in society, prayer would not be a bad thing,” said coalition member Linda Kelley. “This is a state that was founded on religious tolerance. We have a freedom of religion, not a freedom from religion.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and several Jewish organizations object to formal prayers in school.
“We believe that the state should not encourage organized prayer at school,” said ACLU legislative director Suzanne Smith. “There is a coercive element that violates the First Amendment.” Captive audiences at school events should not be forced to pray, she said.
In March, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a controversial school prayer case over mandated invocations before football games in a Texas school district.
David Conn, director of the Maryland Jewish Alliance, recommended the state Legislature wait for the Supreme Court ruling before it passes any school prayer bills.
“Generally, the Maryland Jewish Alliance opposes school-sanctioned prayer. Individual students have the absolute right to pray before physics exams or before meals as they choose,” Conn said, noting that he could not comment specifically on the bill before he read it.
Representatives from B’nai B’rith, a Jewish organization, raised concerns about the constitutionality of the legislation and any possible violation of the separation between church and state.
“It’s our position that the public square doesn’t have to be naked of religious expression. On the other hand, you don’t want to have tax-supported activities that might support one religion,” said Eric Rozenman, B’nai B’rith spokesman. The Maryland Constitution protects religious expression, saying “nothing shall prohibit or require the making of reference to belief in … God or a Supreme Being in any governmental or public document, proceeding, activity, ceremony, school, institution, or place.” -30- CNS-2-11-00