STANFORD — Lincoln County High School will not have a prayer during its graduation ceremony this month, according to school officials.
Six students recently told Principal Tim Godbey they believe they should not be subjected to Judeo-Christian prayers during their commencement ceremony May 24.
Student-led prayer at graduation has been a long-standing part of the ceremony, and the students’ request “marks the first year we’ve had dissension,” Godbey said.
Under federal and state laws, Godbey and school staff members cannot formally sponsor prayer. However, those laws do not stop students from praying out loud on school grounds, the principal noted.
Godbey has received a lot of “feedback” from community members, most of whom want the principal to keep student-led prayer as part of the graduation ceremony. Godbey, who says he prays privately for his students every day, understands why people have become so concerned about the issue.
“But my first responsibility as an educator is to make sure the rights of every student are protected,” Godbey said.
Board of Education member Theresa Long acknowledged in a Facebook post that she has fielded many phone calls and emails about the issue.
“I am here to set the story straight about this situation,” Long wrote. “There is a law mandated by the federal government that we cannot pray or force prayer on anyone! The students have voted each year, and this year there happened to be students voting against prayer during graduation. It is not LCHS, it is not the board, it is a law! Yes, this saddens me. I also understand that with freedom of speech, prayer could be incorporated by that speaker!”
The principal said officials have not pondered what to do at future graduation ceremonies, as it would be up to the Class of 2014 and subsequent graduating classes.
Bradley Chester, a graduating senior, is an atheist and one of the students who approached Godbey about not having prayer at graduation.
"I feel like you shouldn't force your religion upon anybody,” Chester said in an interview with WKYT in Lexington. “And a lot of people are saying if there are prayers at graduation, you don't have to participate, you can sit there and not listen, close your ears. Well, one, it's my graduation. I shouldn't have to close my ears.
"This is a place for school, not a church. I feel like I'm graduating from Lincoln County High, not Lincoln County Church."
Jonathan Hardwick, president of the class of 2013 who will speak at graduation, told WKYT “the school can’t stop me” if he wants to pray during the commencement ceremony.
Godbey acknowledged there are rumors spreading through the community about whether a student who verbally prays during graduation would not get his diploma or otherwise be disciplined. The principal said such rumors are false and that taking any action against a student who prays without disrupting the ceremony would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution.