Irmo High Student Sues Over Prayer at Graduation
Matthew Nielson says that prayer during the ceremony violates his rights under the First Amendment.
Editor's note: Story was updated with quote from Superintendent Dr. Stephen Hefner's letter to Matthew Nielson.
OUTSIDE COLUMBIA, SC -- An 18-year-old Irmo High school graduate is suing Lexington-Richland 5 for allowing prayer during graduation.
Matthew Nielson says he suffered "unwanted exposure to a school-sanctioned invocation/benediction/prayer/religious message/blessing" when a fellow classmate read a prayer before the graduates received their diplomas Wednesday, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Columbia.
Nielson told WIS that he didn't feel like he was a part of that portion of the graduation ceremony.
"I didn't remove my cap," Nielson said. "I looked toward the superintendent and let the time pass. I was obviously not a part of that part of the graduation ceremony. The district didn't feel like it needed to find time for me and my non-religious or non-Christian friends."
Nielson filed the lawsuit along with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Wisconsin that defends the separation between church and state and educates the public about non-theist views.
The plaintiffs claim that the prayer at graduation was a violation of Nielson's rights under the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, according to the law suit.
A district policy allows for a benediction or invocation at graduation if the majority of the senior class votes in favor of it, according to the lawsuit. The class of 2012 voted in favor of having a prayer.
Nielson met with Irmo High's principal, wrote a letter to the school board and met with the superintendent to request that the prayer not be delivered, according to the lawsuit. But his request was denied.
He told WIS, he hopes his lawsuit will stop prayer from being included in future graduations.
District officials declined to comment on the lawsuit but did refer to Superintendent Dr. Stephen Hefner's letter to Nielson's complaint, which is in the attached lawsuit.
Here's an excerpt of the letter:
"I have reflected on everything you said during our meeting and, while I empathize with your position, I do not believe that I can in good conscience grant your request for me to step in and interfere with the decision of a majority of students who voted earlier this school year to include a prayer at their graduation ceremony.
As I mentioned to you during our conference, while I am a staunch supporter of the separation of Church and State, I do not believe that Freedom of Religion should be interpreted as requiring Freedom from Religion within the public schools. Here, I must note that I disagree with your characterization that the prayer in question is Statesponsorship or endorsement of the Christian faith. The decision to offer a prayer tomorrow was initiated by and will be offered by students, who in so doing are exercising their Freedom of Religion, with the School District's only involvement being administrative as far as the distribution and counting of the ballots."