The Riverside School district in Lake City, Arkansas, was given a choice. Either drop their illegal prayer from a graduation ceremony or face legal action. They went another route entirely. Rather than hold 6th grade graduation without a prayer, they've opted out of the ceremony entirely.
The story itself isn't anything new or startling. One parent protested and called the ACLU. The ACLU told the school that leading prayers is, indeed, illegal at graduations, and there's plenty of precedent. Lots of parents and children are offended that their rights have been taken away. You know the routine.
From a certain perspective, there are a lot of good things happening here. It's great that this story is getting old. It's happening in Kentucky, California, Louisiana, Rhode Island, and quite literally, all over the country. Students and parents have been emboldened by the victories of their predecessors, and they're standing up for the Constitution. They're insisting that public schools must be secular.
If the gay marriage controversy is any indicator, prayer in schools is a dead man walking. Less than 10 years ago, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to issue a marriage license. Today, 11 states allow same-sex marriage, and there's no reason to think it's going to stop here. Federally legalized gay marriage is just waiting for a favorable Congress. It's only a matter of time.
The same is probably true for the implementation of the wall of separation in schools. With all the legal precedent, and the transparency available to students via the internet, schools are simply not going to be able to hide illegal religious practices. School officials like those in Arkansas are acting like petulant children. It's as if they're saying, "If we can't play by our rules, we're going to take our ball and go home!" This isn't a position of power. It's a last-ditch attempt at holding power that's already been lost.
The talking points are getting old. A decade ago, claims of "religious oppression" carried a lot of weight. Today, many have had the time to consider things a little more carefully. Secularization is a protection of religious rights. It is the only protection of religious rights. We're beginning, as a nation, to remember what our founding fathers -- especially those who believed in god(s) -- were doing when they created a godless government. They were ensuring that nobody could force their religious beliefs on anyone else. That is religious freedom.
The Riverside School District's decision to cancel graduation is a win for secularization. Granted, it's not the best of all situations because there's no graduation. But there's also no illegal prayer in a graduation ceremony, and that's a win. In five years, there will be no long-lasting trauma from missing a grade school ceremony. There will, however, be a long-lasting impact on millions of other children, and for the better.
These school officials knew it was a losing battle to fight for the prayer, so they made things worse for everybody rather than simply following the law. The fact is, it's perfectly reasonable to have a graduation without a prayer. This is going to be a hard line to hold, even for the very religious: a once in a lifetime grade-school event versus a prayer everybody hears ten times a week anyway. If enough schools start cancelling graduation, someone's going to say, "Okay, folks. This is ridiculous. Let's just have graduation without prayer." And it'll be fine.
On one hand, it's sad that we've endured 30+ years of religious legislation under the Republichristian Party. Many people have suffered mightily, and we've taken some big steps backward in civil and personal rights. But perhaps there's a silver lining. Half of the difficulty this time around was that we forgot history. Those ancient tomes with their haughty language and indecipherable penmanship seem like they're part of another universe.
Next time around, however, it won't be so. Every word of this protracted debate has been preserved on a million servers. Every decision is there in print, electronic, and video format. There will be no overlooking the damage done by religious favoritism this time. It will be much more difficult to forget the thousands of hateful messages sent to Damon Fowler and Jessica Alquist. We will have video footage of angry Christians telling atheists to just get out of the country if they don't like it. If we ever need to visit this discussion again, the evidence will be clear.
Kudos to the Riverside School District. We know you don't like following the law, but you're doing it. And good for you for making children miss their graduation. In another 30 years or so, you're going to be the poster children for religious intolerance, in the same way that your parents were the poster children for racial intolerance. Your querulous, cantankerous, pouting refusal to be inclusive is being preserved for posterity. Step up to the camera, and smile. Everybody's watching.