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Moves to limit traditional prayers in public school-sponsored events are not new, nor are they limited to Anderson County. A neighboring county experienced an incident similar to the ban on the football coaching staff praying with the team.
Just before the Shelby County High School graduation in 2006, a graduating student, who was not of the Christian faith, protested the use of an invocation during the Shelby County High School graduation ceremony. Even though the prayer was student-led, those complaining about its use argued it was not appropriate for a school-sponsored event.
Emily Chandler, was a member of the Shelby County Class of 2006 and vividly remembers the events surrounding her graduation.
(Chandler is related to this writer's wife.)
“When I heard that there was an issue with the invocation being held, I was disappointed,” Chandler said in an e-mail. “My faith in Jesus Christ is very strong and the individual who was upset about the invocation being held has a strong faith as well. Although our beliefs may be different, I respected them in the fact that they were just as strong about what they believed in as I was and still am about what I believe in.”
It became a major issue in Shelbyville and hundreds of citizens protested in front of the Shelby County Board of Education offices the night a vote was taken that removed the invocation from the graduation ceremony. However, many students in the graduating class began to act.
The students decided amongst themselves to recite The Lord's Prayer during the graduation ceremony.
“Those of us who wanted to recite the prayer all stood up in unison, bowed our heads and began reciting The Lord's Prayer. It wasn't long until we started hearing echoes from the crowd who were joining us in prayer,” remembers Chandler, who still lives in Shelbyville.
Chandler remains strong in her beliefs, but also believes there should be respect for those who disagree. “I felt like it was our right as Americans and Christians to stand up in a public place and pray and to thank God for the blessing of being high school graduates,” she said. “My thoughts haven't swayed since that day at all. I still have respect for the individuals who chose not to (participate) in the prayer as I feel like it is their right as well to choose their beliefs.”
While student-led prayers are not prohibited by the Anderson County Board of Education's decision last week, many are concerned about what they perceive a further erosion of rights and free speech.
Chandler was asked if she had advice for young people caught in such a dilemma.
“Stay strong and stay true to yourself,” she said. “I think it is wonderful to explore your beliefs and truly question why you believe what you believe. Once you know in your heart that you believe what you believe for a reason, stand up for it. Be strong, but be humble. Listen to others who have beliefs different than you, discuss your feelings of one another's beliefs and challenge one another.
“We live in a world where we have freedom, and what an amazing thing that is, but with freedom comes conflict and the way that you face conflict shows your true character but it is a testament to how strong your faith is.
“The Scripture that comes to mind for me that rings true to facing adversity is James 1:2-3 that reads, 'Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.'”