Graduation prayer at rural Kentucky high school irks atheists, delights Christians

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As another year of high school comes to a close in communities across this great nation, you can count on two things: a few really futile and stupid senior pranks along with at least one kerfuffle over prayer during a commencement ceremony.

This year’s graduation prayer-related brouhaha comes courtesy of Lincoln County High School in central Kentucky. In the face of a challenge from at least half a dozen students, the rural public school’s graduation ceremony included a prayer by the senior-class president, reports The Advocate-Messenger.

A student-led prayer has been an annual tradition for each graduating class. Jonathan Hardwick, the Class of 2013 president, delivered this year’s version.

“Thank you for helping us get here safely today, Lord, and thank you for the many blessings you have given us,” Hardwick said, according to the Danville newspaper.

Friday night’s entreaty lasted about a minute. Many audience members repeated Hardwick’s closing “Amen.” There was also a standing ovation.

Outside, a few local residents held signs signaling their support of the prayer.

Ricky Smith, an atheist who was once a Christian, appears to be a major force — perhaps the primary force — behind the opposition to the annual prayer. He attended the graduation because some students and parents had requested his presence.

Smith seems to have politely exited the ceremony for the duration of the prayer.

“Having church groups at the entrance of the school makes non-Christian students as well as their family members and friends feel uncomfortable and even threatened,” Smith told The Advocate-Messenger.

“Every student should feel safe at their graduation and should not have to worry about religious bullying,” he added.

The atheist plans to inform the American Civil Liberties Union and the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation about the public prayer at Lincoln County High. He believes that the prayer violated the civil rights of non-Christian students.

Tim Godbey, the principal at Lincoln County High and a self-professed Christian, told The Advocate-Messenger earlier this month that he believes that the federal Constitution allows students to pray provided that there is unanimous consent for the prayer and it does not disrupt school activities.

Earlier this month, Principal Godbey spoke to The Interior Journal, another local newspaper, about the then-impending fracas. 

Godbey explained that the six students had met with him to say that they did not want a prayer at their commencement.

“No students have ever done that before,” Godbey told the paper. “My responsibility in upholding the Constitution and the First Amendment was I have to protect their rights as well as the rights of those that want (prayer).”

One of the protesting students, Bradley Chester, reportedly told WKYT that his atheist beliefs ought to prevent the rest of the community from praying at the public-school graduation.

“This is a place for school, not a church,” Chester told the local CBS-affiliate. “I feel like I’m graduating from Lincoln County High, not Lincoln County church.”

An Associated Press account at dated May 3 said that Godbey had, in fact, cancelled the prayer. At that time, though, Hardwick was already suggesting that he would pray when it was his turn to speak.

“It’s a way of celebrating an important event in our life with a prayer to something that has helped us and guided us through a major part of our life,” Hardwick argued. “If I want to have a prayer, the school can’t stop me.”

Poor-quality video of Hardwick’s prayer and the subsequent standing ovation he received swiftly reached YouTube and other social media websites.