Upset by the controversy surrounding prayer at the Northern High School graduation, a group of Christian ministers, elected officials and residents wants to restore student-led prayer at public school events in Calvert County.
"Our children who have asked if they can have prayer in their graduation were denied," said the Rev. Doug Myers, pastor at Bayside Baptist Church in Chesapeake Beach. "It's easy to roll over children, to deny them their rights. . . . Rather than sitting around carping, wringing our hands, saying this is not right, we are exploring the possibilities of exercising the rights given to us."
In addition to Myers, the group of about 15 includes County Board of Commissioners President Linda L. Kelley (R-Owings) and state Dels. George W. Owings III (D-Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Calvert) and Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary's), as well as the Rev. Steve Howell of Grace Brethren Church in Calvert County and the Rev. John Kassouf of First Lutheran Church.
The group, which has met twice, is weighing legal and political challenges to a recent decision by Calvert school officials to drop student-led prayer at high school graduations. The officials canceled the prayer after an objection by one graduating student, who was backed by the Maryland state attorney general and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Attorney General Joseph Curran has said that Maryland public schools are not permitted to include student-led prayer at graduation because it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
Myers and other residents, angered by the ban, protested by reciting the Lord's Prayer during a moment of silent reflection at the Northern High School graduation last month. "The state is telling individual members, telling us, `You will not pray,' " Myers said. "That will not be."
John Remson, a member of Bayside Baptist and a spokesman for the group, said it is too early to know how far it will challenge the school administration. Several weeks ago, some members approached the Board of Education and informally asked the board to adopt a policy that would allow student-led prayer at graduation.
Myers said political action may be needed down the line.
"We have an elected school board, elected officials and a lot of things will be decided at the ballot box," Myers said. "If people agree we need to have a school board in favor of students praying, I'm sure people will ask the question. They're going to be polled on this. This isn't something you can dodge anymore."
Myers called the group "diverse," but only Christian clergy have participated so far, with no representatives of other faiths.
O'Donnell and Owings said they are offering political advice to the group and may introduce legislation on its behalf in the General Assembly.
"We open every day of the Maryland General Assembly with a prayer," O'Donnell said. "And that's the center of state government. If we can open every day with a prayer, it works, it's okay. It's not inconsistent with being a governmental entity. I'm having trouble understanding how a simple, little prayer for divine oversight at a time when kids are starting their life is a problem."
Owings said he is asking Curran to revisit his earlier interpretation of the law. "I'm under the impression that if it's student-organized and student-led, that it is permissible," Owings said. "You're going to see the whole prayer in school issue revisited."