A school district in Kentucky has agreed to stop presenting prayers at its graduation ceremonies following a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a prominent atheist group advocating for a strict separation of church and state.
According to a news release Thursday, Pikeville Independent School District’s legal counsel recently told FFRF, “I have had the opportunity to review your attached letter and wanted to let you know that I have advised the principal to refrain from religious prayer at future graduations.”
In July, FFRF sent Pikeville Independent Schools Superintendent David Trimble a letter on behalf of a “concerned citizen” who reported that the 2020 Pikeville High School graduation ceremony included three student-led prayers.
The letter cited the Supreme Court decisions in Lee v. Weisman and Santa Fe Indep. Sch. District v. Doe when making the case that prayers at school-sponsored events violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “It is well-settled that schools may not include prayer in graduation ceremonies,” the letter read.
The beginning of the ceremony featured an invocation, where a graduating senior at Pikeville High School thanked God for “the experiences we have had through this distinguished school” and “the teachers, coaches and staff that have put in countless hours to provide us with resources necessary to become successful.” He also expressed hope that God would “continue to walk with us along our future endeavors and watch over as we continue this journey called life.”
FFRF specifically took issue with the student’s use of the phrases “Heavenly Father” and “In your son’s name, we pray.” The letter contended that the “exclusively Christian” prayers alienated the “38 percent of younger Americans who are not religious.”
About halfway through the ceremony, the salutatorian gave an address, thanking his “Lord and savior, Jesus Christ” as he reflected on his high school experience. He urged his fellow graduates to “make the Word of God a priority in your life as we leave high school and head off into the workforce, military, or higher education.”
“As I have grown in my relationship with Jesus Christ, I have found that I am unable to walk through this life alone and find true success, happiness or peace,” he added. “The next few years will likely be one of the most crucial parts of our life as we head into the front lines of the war on maintaining Christian faith.”
“Proverbs 3:5-6 says ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.'”
The salutatorian, the son of Pikeville High School’s principal, also gave the benediction at the end of the ceremony. He thanked God for “allowing us to all come together, wherever we may be, to celebrate this important milestone” and “giving me the friends that I hold close to my heart,” in addition to asking Him “to continue to watch over us as we start this new chapter in our lives.”
In its complaint letter, FFRF asked the district to “refrain from allowing religious rituals–including prayers, benedictions, and invocations–as part of future graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored events.” In addition, the district was asked to “respond in writing detailing the steps you take to address this issue.”
The Christian Post reached out to the Pikeville Independent School District and it confirmed the authenticity of the statement attributed to the district’s legal counsel. Trimble shared a version of a statement he gave to local news outlet WYMT-TV with The Christian Post: “For us, for 150 years now this has been a student-led ceremony. The involvement of any adults is simply saying the names, confirming the class, and giving the perfect attendance awards and handing diplomas.”
“We always want people to be comfortable,” he added. “We always want people to know that’s important to us. However, it is also very important that we protect the rights and the freedoms of our students and those who are involved in that graduation ceremony.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF, applauded the move, saying, “The culmination of 13 years of secular education should end not in divisive and exclusionary prayer, but in a celebration that welcomes all students and participants. We’re confident that Pikeville Independent Schools will keep its word and won’t subject its graduating class to prayers.”