Pat Robertson's prayers don't play in Farmer City


PAT Robertson intends to make the job of serving on a school board even harder. The Christian broadcaster has mounted a campaign in Maryland and around the country to use this year's high school graduation ceremonies as a springboard to bring prayer back to public schools.

Charging that his opponents want "to keep God away from America's graduations," Mr. Robertson, through his legal foundation, the American Center for Law and Justice, has issued 300,000 copies of a bulletin that encourages students to initiate prayers, Christian testimonies and other religious speech during graduation ceremonies this month and next.

The bulletin cites a dubious legal precedent -- a Texas case that probably will go before the U.S. Supreme Court -- and couples this decision with a not-so-subtle hint that any school board that fails to heed the evangelist's bulletin and refuses to allow graduation prayers may face an expensive lawsuit.

Mr. Robertson opened his "700 Club" TV program to an attorney who explained exactly how students could petition public school authorities for graduation prayers. So far, the evangelist's "call to action" has sparked disputes in more than 140 school districts, according to Keith A. Fournier, executive director of the foundation.

Mr. Robertson and his supporters, however, suffered a key setback last month in a small Illinois town called Farmer City. What happened there is a good example of how religious freedom and the separation of church and state can co-exist -- and how courageous public officials advanced both.

At Farmer City, 63 of the 66 seniors at Blue Ridge High School voted to include prayers in their graduation ceremony. When school officials objected, saying student-led prayers were unconstitutional, one of the students contacted Mr. Robertson's foundation.

A team of lawyers descended on Farmer City, hoping to turn the situation into a test case for the courts. The lawyers offered free legal aid to the school district if it sanctioned student-led graduation prayers. But Lelan Beckley, a soybean farmer who is president of the school board, backed the high school officials and sent the Robertson lawyers packing.

The board struck a sensitive balance. It permitted the class valedictorian and salutatorian to continue to make their graduation speeches -- which can include prayers -- without prior school approval. However, the school district itself will not sanction prayer services by offering an invocation and benediction during the graduation ceremony.

Mr. Robertson's lawyers insist that such services could be included in the ceremony under a controversial Texas case. At Clear Creek High School near Houston, the school board approved graduation prayers that were initiated and led by students. The resolution was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Yet in light of its decision banning prayers in graduation ceremonies, the Supreme Court told the appeals court to reconsider the Clear Creek case. Last November the lower court again concluded that prayer services by students were constitutional. The case is pending a probable second review by the Supreme Court.

The contrast between Farmer City and Clear Creek is all the more amazing because the Clear Creek case survived a review by a federal appeals court -- a place where one might expect more legal sophistication than in a small community in the heartland. But sometimes disputants of church-state doctrine forget that behind legal reasoning should lie the experiences of real people.

Fortunately, the citizens of Farmer City understand that church and state are kept distinct in this country to preserve our tradition of liberty. As one resident at the packed meeting put it, "There can't be freedom of religion unless there's also freedom from religion. There's a difference between prayer and a prayer service. The Supreme Court has never outlawed prayer, only prayer services."

By standing up to Pat Robertson, school officials taught their students a valuable lesson -- that toleration requires that a majority sometimes check itself in the service of individual freedom. In the end, the individual freedom of the valedictorian and salutatorian may well include religious expression during graduation. But religious liberty does not mean, as Mr. Robertson seems to think, a cross emblazoned on every mortarboard.

David R. Raupp teaches legal writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about 30 miles east of Farmer City.

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