No prayer for school veterans event
BOB FORD/TIMES NEWS
On Nov. 9, 2012, U.S. Army veteran Gil Henry recited a prayer at a Veterans Day presentation at the L.B. Morris Elementary School in Jim Thorpe.
This year, Henry, who serves as chaplain for the VFW Post 294 in Albrightsville and for the American Legion Post 304 in Jim Thorpe, is staying home after learning the school district has barred prayers at the ceremony, to be held Monday.
"It breaks my heart, I've got to tell you," Henry said. "From what I understand, they've been doing this program since right after World War II. Some of the guys are going to go do the program, and I respect that. But on principle, I can't do it. I won't do it."
School district solicitor Gregory Mousseau said that soon after the 2012 program, the district received a letter from the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. The letter said that the organization had received a complaint that a chaplain had performed an invocation and closing prayer, which "inflicted unlawful prayer on school children."
The Supreme Court in several cases over the decades has consistently ruled that school-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional.
"We responded to this, and we will not violate the Constitution. But we're grateful that the veterans will be putting on a program again this year," Mousseau said.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation's website gives this account of the chain of events:
"FFRF was contacted by a concerned parent after a Veterans Day assembly included opening and closing prayer by a chaplain. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Barbara Conway on Nov. 21. Markert noted that prayers alienate nonreligious members of the school and mislead children into believing only religious people serve in the military, while citing the statistic that about 23 percent of military personnel identify as having no religious preference.
"These prayers further perpetuate the myth that there are no 'atheists in foxholes' and that the only veterans worth memorializing are Christians," Markert wrote.
The district's attorney responded March 14 to say that the violation will not recur and that all outside entities making presentations in the district "will not engage in offending behavior."
FFRF was also instrumental in prompting the Wallenpaupack Area School District in Wayne and Pike counties to not allow veterans from the Hawley Wilson-Kelch Post 311 American Legion to include prayer in their school presentations, said Superintendent Michael Silsby.
He said FFRF challenged the district's tradition of inviting clergy to offer prayers at graduation ceremonies. Silsby researched the matter, and read a 1992 Supreme court ruling concerning clergy offering prayers at a public school graduation. In that case, Lee versus Weisman, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion: "No holding by this Court suggests that a school can persuade or compel a student to participate in a religious exercise. That is being done here, and it is forbidden by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."
"It's the same thing if you invite a chaplain to do a prayer at a Veterans Day program. It was right on point that you couldn't invite clergy," he said. "Any time it's a school-sponsored activity, you cannot allow prayer."
Chaplain Henry is joined in his decision to stay away from the school presentation by U.S. Navy veteran Frank Sebelin, also of Jim Thorpe.
"I said I won't go without the prayer," he said.
Sebelin first considered defying the request, and reciting the prayer anyway. But he decided against doing that out of respect for his fellow veterans.
But Sebelin, who served during the Korean War, is disheartened.
"To me, this is like communism. You've got 1 percent of people telling the other 99 percent what to do," he said. "This is what all of us in the military fought for, to be able say our prayers whenever we want. I just feel like they're trying to take things away from us in this country that our guys died for. We've got to stand up and fight."
Sebelin said that veterans are "not trying to force anything on anybody" by praying during the presentations.
"It upsets me. These programs at the schools have been going on for a long time," he said.
The issue has not surfaced at other local schools, according to a poll of superintendents.
Carbon County Director of Veterans Affairs Henry Desrosiers declined to comment.