By Victor Ochieng
Separation of church and state is something many people are taking very seriously even as it remains controversial, more so when it comes to its scope. It’s on this very pedestal that public school officials in one of the country’s fastest-growing cities were accused in response to prayers during graduation.
The problem began when Rick McDaniel, superintendent of the McKinney Independent School District, prayed at a pulpit with a cross on it. Little murmurs sprung up because the session was a mandatory school employee meeting at a church in the community, located some 30 miles from Dallas.
The pressure got too much from parents of the 24,500-student school district, leading to a last month decision to end their more than a decade practice of holding high school commencement ceremonies at the Prestonwood Baptist, a Southern Baptist church located near Plano.
The move didn’t go down well with Prestonwood Pastor Jack Graham, who serves as an evangelical adviser to President Donald Trump. Graham is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“It appears religious freedom is under attack at the McKinney Public Schools,” Graham said in a Twitter post. “It was our refusal to remove the cross from view that created this cowardly decision.”
In another post, Graham said, “Just wondering on what planet a church, synagogue, or mosque would be expected to cover its religious symbols to host a public school graduation.”
That was still not enough for him. The pastor later claimed that the administrators of the school “yielded to the pressure of atheist groups and their supporters.”
As expected, McDaniel’s prayer outraged Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which called for the school to “temporarily cover iconography” as a way to ensure that graduation ceremonies are kept secular.
Following the school district’s decision, FFRF’s co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement: “We are pleased that the school has moved its graduation to a secular location rather than attempt to modify a house of worship into a place that appears secular. The district’s decision to change its tradition to protect its students’ rights of conscience is anything but cowardly.”
Across the country, conflicts like the one in McKinney are becoming common, said Charles Haynes, co-author of “Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools” and founding director of the Newseum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center in Washington, D.C.
“As we grow more religiously diverse in the United States and people are more visible from various religious groups that have long been here but have not been visible, we are being called in these communities to live up to the First Amendment for the first time in many cases,” said Haynes.
Haynes pointed out that the fact that a cross is visible during graduation isn’t wrong, explaining that what’s wrong is a church requiring that it be visible or requiring the students to listen to a pastor.