Religion Does Not Belong at Public School Graduation Ceremonies

6.23.10UCHSGraduation2010ByLuigiNovi22 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine that your son or daughter is graduating from public high school or a state college. You are a devout Christian, and you provided your child with the best Christian upbringing you could manage. It was successful in that he or she shares your faith. You are incredibly proud to attend the commencement ceremony today at the school. But something unexpected happens that really makes you uncomfortable. One of the student speakers at the ceremony delivers something that sounds a bit like a prayer and references Allah during it. Strangely, it does not seem like anyone in the audience took notice.

The commencement speaker is introduced and steps up to the podium. She shares some of the generic life lessons with the graduating students speakers at such events typically mention tells. One of them includes the importance of religious faith in guiding one's life. She shares that her Muslim faith has been a key part of her success and that she hopes the graduates will find "Allah's purpose" for them.

How do you feel about Muslim prayers and references to Allah dominating your child's commencement ceremony? Nobody mentioned your god or Jesus. Instead, they spoke of Allah, and nobody in the audience seemed to mind. As you struggle to wrap your head around what you just witnessed, I'd venture a couple of guesses about how you are feeling.

First, I'd guess that you are somewhat confused by what just happened. You've certainly heard of separation of church and state, and what you just witnessed does not seem consistent with it. A public school isn't supposed to be involved in religious instruction or the promotion of a religion. It certainly sounded to you like one of the messages in this commencement ceremony was distinctly pro-Islam. This seems inappropriate. Second, I'd guess that you are at least a bit angry. You are Christian, and your child is Christian. Why should either of you have to hear messages promoting Islam at such an important event? It makes you feel like an outsider, like you don't really belong there. Yes, you were invited, but somehow this event really isn't for you or your family. It has become alienating.

I think you are beginning to understand how atheists, Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christians feel when we encounter prayers referencing Jesus and not-so-subtle efforts to promote Christianity during commencement ceremonies. We too feel confused over how to reconcile what we are witnessing with what we know of separation of church and state. We too feel angry, at least in part because this sort of thing makes us feel like outsiders.

If you still aren't getting it, read the text above again but replace all the mentions of Islam with Satanism and those of Allah with Satan. I know it will seem farfetched to imagine yourself hearing Satanic prayers at your child's public school graduation, but just try to imagine how it would feel for that to happen. What I am trying to tell you is that this is how many non-Christians feel when these ceremonies take every opportunity to reference Jesus.

A commencement ceremony is a ritual that signifies an important milestone. It should be accessible and inviting for all participants. Sectarian prayer, references to supernatural deities, and attempts to promote religious belief of any sort do not belong at such ceremonies. They inevitably divide and alienate portions of the audience.