A former Navy chaplain is offering a reward to any student who says a prayer during a graduation ceremony at a school in Florida following the threat of a lawsuit by an atheist group aimed at banning religious utterances from the event.
Former Navy Chaplain and current Colorado pastor Gordon James Klingenschmitt is offering the bounty to the first high school student in St. Johns County, Fla., who says the Our Father or a prayer ending in Jesus’ name over the school microphone during the graduation ceremony.
It is the latest escalation in several months of controversy after the school board considered adopting a policy allowing inspirational messages, including prayer, at graduation.
A statute passed in Florida last year gave school districts the option to allow such messages by students. The statute says school district personnel may not influence the message, and students "shall be solely responsible for the preparation and content of the inspirational message."
The school board was asked to consider adopting the policy but then decided against doing so after recommendations by its attorney.
A letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an atheist group, was sent to the school district in late March. It pointed out that no other district in Florida used the new law to pass such a policy and any board that passes the policy likely would be sued.
"The board that first passes this policy is asking for a lawsuit," the atheist group’s letter stated. The letter indicated the Florida law was clearly an attempt to get prayer back in the state’s schools.
"Our preference is to work with the school. We prefer not to sue," said FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel.
The FFRF has deep pockets. Its 2011 Form 990 shows it spent more than $201,572 in lawsuits in 2010 challenging "entanglement of religion and government" and more than $500,000 on education events that included scholarships to 39 students and youth activist awards to six other students.
"So far, everyone’s been very reasonable," Seidel said, claiming, "a total of six or seven different groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti-Defamation League" are monitoring the situation.
The specifics of Klingenschmitt’s offer are outlined on his website and YouTube.
"We are going to recognize students that have more courage than their school board," said Klingenschmitt. "I wonder if the school board is being led by fear or by courage. We want to reward courage."
St. Johns County School Board chair Tommy Allen said it will abide by the law and the Constitution.
"We will follow the law as we always have and not violate any student's constitutional rights or the Establishment Clause. We will comply with the U.S. DOE [Department of Education] guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public schools," he said in an emailed statement.
"The Florida legislature passed the law last year which specifically allows prayer. The school board may adopt a policy, so clearly the law allows the students to pray," said Klingenschmitt. "The Freedom From Religion Foundation is not allowing students to pray. The atheists are pressing the school board to break the law."
However, FFRF claims the pastor is encouraging students to break the law. "He is inciting people to violate the law," Seidel said. He said the pastor, in his reward video, "misconstrued the facts."
Klingenschmitt said the group’s letter states it annually gives thousands of dollars to students who "stand up for atheism" and also stated it would "incentivize a free thought message and discourage prayers."
Seidel said his letter to the school board indicated his group would "publicize our awards if the school district adopted the policy. … [But] we would never suggest a student, atheist or otherwise, get up and break a law or get up to the microphone and give a message when it is illegal."
"If the atheists are offering monetary rewards to students not to pray, it’s only fair Christians can offer monetary rewards, too," Klingenschmitt said. He called the atheist group "hypocritical."
The reward is good for the next four years, said the chaplain. He explained that of the six high schools in St. John’s County, "I expect in the next four years we will have one student stand up to pray."
Frank Upchurch III, the attorney for the school district, said the DOE’s guidance on school prayer is clear and also relates to graduation. "That’s the policy we follow," he said.
That guidance states that students at graduation retain "primary control over the content of their expression" and as long as that expression is not attributable to the school, it therefore "may not be restricted because of its religious (or anti-religious) content."
Upchurch said previous graduation addresses have been "celebratory and uplifting, and no one was censoring students’ addresses to purge any references to faith."
Klingenschmkitt told the Washington Free Beacon he has already raised $835 of the $1,000 needed for the reward.