Graduation prayer issue roils Exeter High

EXETER -- The hot-button issue of school prayer is roiling this small community, creating sharp divisions over an objection to the traditional invocation at graduation.

When the Exeter school board took up the issue this week, trustees rejected a proposal for a moment of silence -- against the advice of the lawyers -- and then decided to let the senior class vote on whether to keep the prayer at their June 4 graduation ceremony.

Exeter High School's class of 2010 will vote any day now, and early indications are that it'll pass easily.

A petition that students gave the school board Wednesday in support of the traditional invocation was signed by 167 seniors, according to school board member Marlene Sario. The graduating class has 225 students.

By handing off the decision to the senior class, the school board was looking for a way to bypass legal prohibitions, Sario said.

"I'm tired of being told, 'We can't do, we can't do, we can't do,' " she said.

The trustees weren't trying to pass the buck though, Sario said. Board members were told that case law permits student prayer -- when students vote for it.

Even so, Sario said, board members know the district could still be sued.

If the class of 2010 votes for an opening prayer, they also will select a student to read it at graduation. In past years, local clergy gave the invocation.

Graduating seniors at Exeter High were happy Thursday to weigh in on the topic.

"I'm an atheist, but I don't care if people want to pray around me," said Diego Lara, 18. "I'm voting for the prayer."

"I personally think it's traditional," said Eric Cervantes, 18. "It means a lot to people because they're praying over us."

The issue has drawn sharp lines through Exeter High, said Bryce Telfer, 17. He said he's a Catholic and favors maintaining the invocation.

"There's really two sides. It's either radically to be for it or against it. There's no in-between really," he said.

School Superintendent Renee Whitson said the issue emerged last fall when "one or more individuals or groups" -- students said one classmate raised objections -- told the administration a prayer at graduation would be objectionable on legal grounds. Administrators were leaning toward a moment of silence because "we were sure a moment of silence would be legal," Whitson said.

The community of 10,700 seems to want the prayer, though.

About three weeks ago, several parents, students and community members met with Whitson to seek the traditional invocation.

Brandon Wright, who works at Church of God of Exeter and was at the meeting, said people are upset over the idea of substituting prayer with a moment of silence.

Wright said he believes if a moment of silence were arranged for the commencement, it would be broken quickly -- by prayer.

"Anyone who believes in prayer has the right to say a prayer under the First Amendment, and I think people should stand up and say it," he said.

About 170 people attended the board of trustees meeting Wednesday night, and no one spoke against having a prayer, Whitson said.