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A group of 200 high school seniors interrupted graduation in Russell Springs, Kentucky, last May. Were they taking a public stand against the war? Objecting to the commencement speaker? No, they were protesting a federal judge's order barring a spoken prayer at the ceremony—by reciting the Lord's Prayer in unison.

In the blogosphere, two conflicting interpretations of the Russell Springs protest quickly spread. Many Christians praised the students and heaped calumny on the judge. One blogger in this camp wrote, "I think that the pursuit of anti-prayer measures like this one indicates how dedicated the ACLU is to the eradication of all mention of Christ in our society." Another wrote, "I hope we never have graduation without prayer!"

On the other side, strict separationists warned that the students were forcing their views on the minority (one student filed a lawsuit challenging the annual practice of allowing a graduation prayer by a student chaplain). Civil libertarians said such a prayer at graduation crossed the line of separation between church and state because it was an official ceremony with a captive audience.

Charles Haynes, a thoughtful observer of our First Amendment travails, noted, "The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly declared school-sponsored prayers unconstitutional, even when delivered by a student." Haynes then accused the 200 protesters of attempting "to impose prayer (their prayer) on everyone else." The First Amendment, he added, "protects us from the tyranny of the majority."

I have long criticized courts and commentators who believe the First Amendment was designed to protect people from occasionally listening to religious messages they would rather not hear. On the contrary, the Framers were more ...

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Civil Reactions
Stephen Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (2012), The Violence of Peace, The Emperor of Ocean Park, and many other books. His column, "Civil Reactions," ran from 2001 until 2007.
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January 2007

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