November 21, 2005 – Posted at 6:03 p.m. CST
JONESBORO, AR – Religious expression in public schools is a hot-button topic that continues to be a frontline subject in culture wars. Extreme views on both sides often push the envelope, leaving the schools caught in the middle. And now, as the ACLU looks to wage a lawsuit against a Region 8 school, it may be an issue that hits close to home.
In May of this year, a Jonesboro student gave a prayer during a high school graduation ceremony at the Arkansas State University Convocation Center. During the prayer, which lasted four minutes, she gave an "altar call" to the community, asking those in the audience to come forward to accept Jesus Christ.
"In the closing moments of this service, if you would like to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, here's your chance," said senior Jessica Reed in a May 20, 2005 taped video of JHS graduation ceremonies.
"We were contacted sometime after that by the American Civil Liberties Union that they felt like there had been a violation of the First Amendment, separation of church and state with regard to a prayer," said Jonesboro Public Schools Attorney Donn Mixon.
And now the ACLU is looking for a plaintiff in a case against Jonesboro High School. In a letter written by the Arkansas ACLU executive director Rita Sklar, the event is described as a "blatant display of contempt for the First Amendment."
"This is a tough area for schools to balance. People have a freedom of religion, but as a school district, we can not recognize a religion, and the balance between those two is where the rub comes," said Mixon.
The Jonesboro Public School District does have a policy on religious beliefs and school ceremonies.
"Our policy is to not recognize any particular religion and not to recognize religion, period," said Mixon, "In this case, the student was on the school program as giving a prayer, and that does go against our policies."
"I'm here to tell you that God is someone, that he is amazing," said Reed during her speech, "He will love you through everything. He will praise you when you are down. All you have to do is give your heart to Him. And before we leave, I want to give you that opportunity."
But Mixon says it's a policy that will be enforced and a problem that won't happen again.
"It has occurred from time to time that students speak their mind about religion, or about prayer at graduation. The problem comes when the school recognizes that," said Mixon, "And we had a lapse where our policy about prayer was apparently not followed that is still being investigated, but we can assure the ACLU and the public that that will not happen again."