Let Us Pray

Principal Mark Estment leads a school community that is comprised in part by a vocal contingent of fundamentalist Christian students and parents. They frequently raise questions about the school curricula. When students use the National Honor Society induction ceremony as an occasion to pray, Estment is drawn into a larger context of political, social, legal, and cultural values that places his stewardship of the school in jeopardy.

Mark Estment, principal at Somerset High School, prepares for the year’s final faculty meeting.

Mark Estment looks at the clock on the wall of his office. Fifteen minutes until the last faculty meeting of the year. This will be an easy one.

He turns his attention to last night’s School Board minutes. Tom Flynt—a conservative Christian school board member—again questioned this summer’s science curriculum workshops.

Over the past ten years, the evangelical Christian segment of the community has become much more active. New churches have sprung up and two of the five school board members identify themselves as conservative Christians. Mark remembers well a potential controversy that came up two years ago when a few students petitioned to have a brief prayer at the opening of each school day. Mark denied the request, citing state and local custom as well as legal implications, and the issue died down. Mark hopes this science curriculum question will fade away as well.

He jots a reminder to talk with Mary Evergreen, head of the science department, gathers up his meeting notes, and heads down the hall. On the way to the faculty meeting, he spots Sean Robinson taking books from his locker. “Congratulations on being accepted to Hamilton.” He claps Sean on the back. “We’re really proud of you.”

“Thanks,” Sean grins. “It was my first choice.”

Mark moves on and speaks to a few other students as he moves down the hall. This year’s senior class has done exceptionally well. Somerset High School’s honors assembly should be pretty impressive. Mark is looking forward to it.

The faculty discusses the upcoming honors assembly and summer staff development plans.

The last of the teachers gather their coffee and cookies and find seats around the horseshoe-arranged tables.

Mark begins, “The major item on today’s agenda is next week’s honors convocation. This is one of the most important events of the year, especially for seniors. I’ve asked Ellen Blumberg, sponsor of the National Honor Society, to remind us of the process and give us any directions we need. Ellen?”

“Thanks, Mark. As most of you know, first we’ll give out general awards and scholarships for our graduating seniors. We’ll conclude by announcing new members to the National Honor Society. This is a big deal. Current members will escort new inductees from the audience, where they’ll be recognized and inducted as a group. Last year, we had trouble keeping these new inductees’ names secret. I don’t want that to happen again. It’s a wonderful tradition, and releasing names early really ruins it. So, please, no leaks!”

Mark wryly comments, “I’m sure some students can make a good guess they’ll be named. But that shouldn’t keep us from honoring our policy of confidentiality until the assembly. I trust that we are all agreed on this?”

See excerpt from the Somerset High School Faculty Handbook below:

The next item on the agenda is the science curriculum and the upcoming summer workshops for teachers. Mark reports the so-far mild controversy over the science curriculum teaching evolution. He then relates the brief discussion that took place at the board meeting the evening before.

Martha Evergreen, head of the science department, stands. “We’re not going to have another round of this, are we? Parents and community members shouldn’t be telling us what we can teach—or not teach, in this case. Creationism is not an acceptable alternative interpretation of the origins of life. I trust that you will make that clear in any dealings you have with board members or parents?” Martha waits for Mark’s nod before continuing. “I’m really proud of our teachers. We’ve got a grant from the National Science Foundation and Bud Hopkins, Eileen Murphy, and Gus Stanfield are going to spend six weeks refining the curriculum and thinking about cross-curricular connections to social studies and English.”

Most teachers clap at the announcement of the grant. Mark comments, “I certainly support the work you’re doing. I just wanted to remind you that some of the community is concerned. We need to be sensitive to the issues.”

The Youth for Christ student group holds its weekly meeting after an evening church service.

Youth for Christ

Following a weekly evening church service, the Youth for Christ group meets. They discuss the upcoming National Honor Society nominations. They’re pretty sure several of them will be inducted.

Tricia suggests, “I think we should do something at the assembly.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, I don’t know, offer a united prayer or something. It could be a powerful statement.”

“Yeah—so powerful we’d get kicked out of school,” notes Sheila.

“You remember what Mr. Estment said when we asked about having prayers? He kept talking about that Supreme Court case in Texas,” Sean adds.

The Supreme Court decision

“That’s true; he did say that. But it might be worth the risk to make a statement,” Tricia said. “And we’re not talking about a school prayer; we’re talking about our own prayer.”

The conversation continues for several more minutes until Rebecca White, president of Youth for Christ, intervenes. “I don’t think we should decide anything tonight. Let’s talk about it next week.”

Several adults attending a prayer breakfast on Saturday to discuss student plans for the honors assembly.

Tricia’s father, Richard, mentions what he has heard about the student prayer plans. “I don’t know,” says Richard, “Tricia seems pretty determined. She thinks it will be an excellent opportunity to give witness.”

“And get the community really mad at us!” says Tamara, “I think it could really turn people off from the very message we’re trying to communicate.”

“Well, I’d like to see the people in this town get a little excited and realize that we live in stressful times, just like the Bible says,” Josie objects. “I’d like to see the kids follow through with their prayer plans.”

“Sean’s excited about this, too,” Ruth Robinson adds. “He’s pretty serious about the things that really matter.”

Samuel White, Rebecca’s father and the other conservative Christian on the School Board replies, “Religion in public schools is complicated. I don’t want to open the door to the whackos out there.” He shrugs, “Still, I told Rebecca she should just follow her conscience. Sometimes you have to take a stand.”

“I hear there are some pretty anti-Christian things going on over at the high school,” Eric says. “It’s time Christians stood up and quit hiding in the corner. We need some kids of courage and faith to make a statement.”

Matthew Reed has been quiet until this point. “Now you’re on to something. The schools get away with teaching that so-called science, and we can’t even say a few prayers and talk about real truth.”

“But working on curriculum to get at the issues of evolution and creationism might be a better way to live out our beliefs than worrying about the kids offering prayers at the assembly,” Tom says. “I’m meeting with Mark Estment Friday afternoon. You can bet that teaching evolution and creationism will come up.”

Evolution, Creation and the Public Schools

At their weekly meeting, the students decide on a prayer.

Tricia has learned she will be included in the National Honor Society

“I have something to tell you guys,” Tricia says at the next Youth for Christ meeting, “but it has to be secret. I mean it.”

She looks around the room for agreement.

“When I went in for my guidance conference today, Mr. Schmidt said, ‘Well, young lady, I’m certainly looking forward to seeing you on that stage next Monday.’ You know what that means.”

“Yesssss!” Sean drums his fingers on the table. “Now we know for sure one of us is in. This is a great opportunity to bear witness.”

“Yeah, yeah,” says Sheila, “that’s easy for you to say. You’re not gonna be up there.”

“Oh, you know I’m in,” Sean says.

“What?” asks Tricia, “What’ve you heard?”

“Nothing,” says Sean. “I don’t need to.” He turns to Sheila. “What about you?”

“Right after history Mr. Hinson said he was sure I was going to enjoy myself Monday.” She rolls her eyes. “He gave me this big cheesy wink.”

Everyone laughs at her imitation of Mr. Hinson. Then Andrew blurts, “I think we should do it!”

“Okay, let’s vote,” says Tricia. “All those in favor of saying a prayer at the honors assembly, say ‘Aye.'”

The vote is unanimous.

“OK, that settles it. So, which prayer should we use?” asks Joanne.

Andrew replies, “I have some ideas. I don’t know if they’re any good.” He reads them.

“That’s good, really good,” says Tricia. “We’ll use it. But I think we should make sure Mr. Estment doesn’t hear about this before we do it. I don’t want to get him in trouble—or have him try to stop us.”

At the student assembly, four students step forward to pray.

A senior escorts Rebecca White to the stage, the last of four members of the Youth for Christ to be inducted. The 20 inductees are now onstage together.

Suddenly, Tricia, Sean, Rebecca, and Sheila move forward as a group, pause, and pray: “We thank thee, Lord Jesus, for providing us with the wisdom to make possible this great day. We pray that you will help our fellow students and our teachers see the light of thy great wisdom. Amen.”

Total silence envelops the auditorium. Mr. Estment stands very still. He’s stunned. He takes a deep breath, clears his throat, and moves ahead with the program as planned. This will just have to wait until later.

The community reacts to the group prayer.

Two days later, several adults from the conservative Christian churches gather for their mid-week prayer breakfast. Their conversation turns quickly to their pride in the student-led prayer.

Ruth is thrilled. “Somebody finally dared to make faith a matter of public record. I’m so proud of Sean. But I’m a little worried. Mr. Estment is meeting with him today. Sean’ll accept whatever happens, but I don’t want him to get in trouble.”

See ISLLC Focus Questions below: