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  Crowd Prays at Graduation; Teen Protester Is Shut Out of Festivities

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 1999; Page A1

It started with a loud, clear voice, a man's voice. And it spread quickly through the hall, picking up the tenors of teenage boys, whispers of young girls and throaty voices of grandmothers. With each word, it grew more determined.

"Our Father, who art in Heaven . . . " The defiant group, thousands strong, ignored a school ban on prayer and insisted that God be part of a Calvert County high school graduation ceremony Wednesday night.

A student who had successfully appealed for a moment of silence, rather than a formal prayer, walked out in protest. When he tried to return to the ceremony to collect his diploma, he was detained in a squad car and threatened with arrest by state police. School officials -- saying they feared he might disrupt the school-sponsored cruise around Baltimore Harbor -- barred him from the graduation party for which he'd already bought a ticket.

"This is a churchgoing community, and no one in Annapolis or Washington, D.C., is going to tell us when and where we can pray," said County Commissioners President Linda L. Kelley (R-Owings), who joined in the recitation of the Lord's Prayer. "The school administrators did the legal thing and complied with the law. But the audience took this one over."

An official for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said yesterday that an emotional majority trampled over the lone teenage boy and the Constitution.

"A student was arrested because he disagreed with the majority and he tried to address that in a responsible way," said Suzanne Smith, of the ACLU, adding that she considered the fact that police detained Nick Becker, 18, equivalent to arrest. No charges have been filed against Becker although state police Lt. George McKeon said yesterday a complaint might still be forthcoming.

"The real loser here is the Constitution and the right of people to express dissent," Smith said, adding that the ACLU is investigating the incident. "I'm appalled by this."

Calvert County, a rural peninsula south of Washington, is a politically conservative place where the newly acquainted frequently ask, "Where do you go to church?" and not, "Do you go to church?"

Prayer had been a part of graduation ceremonies at Northern High School for several years, apparently without objection. This year, Julie Schenk, 17, planned to deliver an invocation at Wednesday evening's commencement until Becker, her 18-year-old classmate, objected.

He said that prayer didn't belong in a public ceremony. Becker is well-known at school for his independent streak. In his junior year, he was forced by school officials to wash his hair in a sink because he came to school with his brown hair sculpted into "Liberty spikes" that resemble the Statue of Liberty's crown. Last fall, he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and was singled out for disciplinary action until the ACLU intervened on his behalf. Becker plans to attend the University of Maryland-Baltimore County in the fall to study film.

In this latest incident, the ACLU and the state attorney general's office sided with Becker and advised Calvert officials to drop the prayer because it violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

As a compromise, Schenk agreed to change her prayer to a "time for reflection" that did not mention God. When she asked for 30 seconds of silence and the audience of about 4,000 rose, a loud male voice began, "Our Father, who art in heaven . . . "

"It started across the hall, and it picked up steam and went around the room," Kelley said, estimating that half the people in the Equestrian Center in Prince George's County joined in. "You could almost hear this thing travel. It just spread."

Becker quickly realized what was happening. "There was a kid behind me saying it real loud, and even the people on the stage were saying it -- even the commissioners," said Becker, who turned and quickly walked to a nearby exit. Once outside, he felt angry and upset.

When Becker tried to go back inside through the front door to get a friend, he was told by police he could not reenter. Calvert County school policy bars any student who leaves a school event from returning. Becker walked around the building and tried to get in through a side door and was blocked by police again.

"I told the cop I'm getting my diploma," Becker said. "He said, 'You're not going back in.' He walked me over to the car, put me in the front of the patrol car and said he was going to give me a citation for failing to obey a lawful order."

McKeon said Becker was "extremely upset" and shouldn't have been allowed to reenter. "We thought it was the best course of action," McKeon said. "We didn't want [him] to disrupt the ceremony."

Becker was released to his parents, who had come outside by that point, McKeon said. School officials gave Becker his diploma and the family went home. Becker was barred from a post-graduation boat cruise for which he had paid $45. Superintendent James R. Hook also said Becker could not participate in the party because he did not take part in the graduation ceremony. Hook said his money will be refunded.

Hook said he was disturbed by the spontaneous prayer and the turn of events. "A moment of silence should have been respected," Hook said. "It shows disrespect for the young lady who asked for silence and for the young man who requested [that the prayer] not be done."

Other community leaders gave direct or subtle support. "It was the right thing to do," said Commissioner David F. Hale (R-Owings), who said the prayer. "We cannot condone breaking the laws, but this was participating in an ongoing prayer. It was a personal choice."

And while Northern High School Principal George Miller said he had to follow Hook's orders, "quite frankly, I'd like to include the invocation."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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