Student Sues Over Prayer at Irmo High Graduation

10:28 PM, May 30, 2012   |    comments
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 PDF Document: Matthew Nielson complaint

Irmo, SC (WLTX) - A senior at Irmo High School sued the school district over a prayer at graduation ceremonies.

Matthew Nielson, 18, filed the suit along with the Freedom of Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that advocates for the separation of church and state.  The document names Lexington-Richland School District Five as the defendant.

According to the suit, Neilson felt he would "suffer unwanted exposure to a school-sanctioned invocation/benediction/prayer/religious message/blessing."

The graduation took place Wednesday, and Nielson attended as scheduled. But afterward, he said he thought the insertion of the statement wasn't necessary.

"It's a shame that at this graduation ceremony...they decided to hold a Christian prayer and draw lines in the beautiful and lovely community that I've come to love here at Irmo High School," Nielson said.

The suit laid out the district policy that if the majority of the senior class approves of a benediction or invocation at a graduation, it can take place.

Neilson argued in the suit that the prayer violated the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause found in the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. In his opinion, the benediction acts as the promotion of religion, whether explicitly stated or not.

For context, here is the full text of the benediction read during the ceremony:


We come today once again asking for your guidance, protection, and mercy. Be with us Lord as we venture out into the world and start this journey called life. There are people sitting here today who are still undecided of the career choice. We ask that you touch them, Lord, and lead them on the path you intend for their lives to follow. Lord even though we all come from different households, financial, religious, and moral backgrounds, I ask that you place us all on the same path of success. We ask that you will continually watch over us because we need you now more than ever and help us Lord with any future endeavors that we may face. Because we know with you all things are possible. We thank you for all the teachers, parents and administrators that were here through our 12 years of school that helped us on beginning the journey of our life. We also pray for families of those who did not make it here to see this day, but remain in our hearts. Our final prayer, Lord, is that you grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Nielson, a self-described "religiously unaffiliated" person, says he tried to convince the district to stop the prayer, including a one-on-one meeting with District Superintendent Steve Hefner and a letter to the board.

Since the event's already happened, he hopes the suit will effect change in the future.

"I hope the district eventually decides to do what is right and I thank them for the lovely school district," Nielson said.

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