Nicholas Becker, the Calvert County high school alumnus who sparked a local controversy when he protested a prayer at his high school graduation, received a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award on Monday.

The national award from the Playboy Foundation that lauded his decision to speak up was a welcome change from the piles of generally unsympathetic letters that arrived at his family's Sunderland home last May, 19-year-old Becker said this week. As part of the award, he received $5,000 and a crystal plaque.

"It feels great," Becker said from New York, after giving an acceptance speech for his "Individual Conscience" award. "It reminds me that I'm not alone and that other people admire what I did and support me."

The controversy began when Becker was a senior at Northern High School and learned that a student-led prayer was to be included in May graduation ceremonies. Becker objected to the plan, contending that the prayer in such a school-sponsored setting would violate the separation between church and state. After the American Civil Liberties Union and state attorney general sided with Becker, the school's principal agreed to replace the prayer with a "moment of reflection."

However, when the time for reflection came at the Northern High School graduation on May 26, hundreds of audience members rose and recited the Lord's Prayer and Becker left the graduation in protest. When he tried to reenter the building to retrieve his diploma, he was turned away and later threatened with arrest.

Becker was nominated for the award by the Maryland ACLU branch after members saw a newspaper report about the incident.

Earlier this fall, the Calvert County Board of Education voted to bar prayer at graduation, a move that hasn't elicited much community response, Superintendent James R. Hook said this week. Under current school policy, he said, local churches are free to host baccalaureate services that are independent of the school district.

"The board adopted a policy that we would not have student-led prayer or a moment of silence unless it was led by the principal in honor of a deceased student or faculty member," Hook said. "Last year, it got sort of out of hand."

Becker now attends the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. He said he still encounters some hostility when he returns home for visits. "I've had cold stares in the 7-Eleven," he said. "But no one has actually come up and punched me."

The Northern graduation controversy prompted a group of Calvert residents to form the Right to Pray Coalition, an organization that advocates the inclusion of student-initiated prayer in schools. Linda L. Kelley (R-Owings), president of the Calvert County Board of Commissioners, is an executive board member for Right to Pray and said the group meets every other week and recently established a Web site, www.right-to-pray.org.

"We have not gone away," Kelley said. "This is not the end of this issue."

And what does she think about the First Amendment award?

"And, Mr. Becker, congratulations," Kelley said wryly.

CAPTION: NICHOLAS BECKER. . . shook up Northern High graduation