May 10, 2010

By Lindsay Kee

On April 2, when Mississippi high school senior Constance McMillen walked excitedly into the prom, she faced a virtually empty room.

Later, she found out the "real" prom was taking place 40 miles away — the prom she had been invited to was a sham maliciously orchestrated to ostracize her simply because she wanted to wear a tuxedo and bring her girlfriend. The actions of the school and parents in this case are not only inconceivably cruel, they are illegal. While (I hope) this example is extreme, it reinforces that schools must keep celebrations such as prom and graduation open and welcoming for all students.

Student was subjected to humiliation

Constance contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a federal lawsuit because her right to free speech was violated. She never should have been subjected to such humiliation and hostility for expressing who she is.

The First Amendment protects students' expression, including bringing same-sex dates or wearing non-gender-conforming clothes to prom. The possibility that others might disapprove of such speech is not sufficient grounds to stifle it.

The First Amendment also protects our right to religious freedom — ensuring that we can all choose whether and how to pray and that religion will not be imposed on us by government entities. Public school-sponsored graduation prayers — even nonsectarian or non-proselytizing prayers — violate the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has held.

Students can, however, affirm their religious beliefs in a privately sponsored, voluntary baccalaureate service held separately from the school's graduation and neither sponsored nor supervised by school officials.

Religion and prayer are an integral part of many students' lives — Tennessee is the fifth most religious state in the country, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. However, not all students are religious, and those who are come from many different faiths and denominations. Yet all of these students have worked hard to cross the stage and receive their diplomas.

While a prayer at graduation may seem harmless, it tells the many students and their families who do not practice the same religion as those leading the prayer that they are outsiders, that the school in which they have invested does not owe them the same respect that they have shown it.

Bill of Rights affirms equality, fairness

Furthermore, allowing schools to sponsor prayers and other religious activities is a slippery slope. Those of us who are religious enjoy being able to make decisions about faith for ourselves and our families, including where and when to pray. By allowing other entities, such as schools, to make those decisions for us, we move one step closer to limiting our own religious freedom, even if a particular prayer happens to resonate with our own belief system. I, for one, do not want to jeopardize that freedom.

As students have learned in their history classes, the Pilgrims set sail in search of religious freedom. Our founders embedded the spirit of equality and fairness in the Bill of Rights. This spring, let's bring those history lessons to life at prom and graduation, ensuring they celebrate all students.

Lindsay Kee is communications manager for the American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee.

This op-ed appeared in The Tennessean on May 10, 2010