ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. -- What goes on inside a church -- prayer -- is at the center of a controversy in St Johns County.
The school board voted 'no' to allowing an inspirational message at graduation this year, which could include a religious prayer, if the student chosen to give the message decided to do that.
The schoolboard wanted control over what was said and feared a lawsuit if a prayer took place. In fact, a letter sent by the Freedom From Religion Foundation said they would be asking for a lawsuit.
A former Navy chaplain in Colorado has weighed in, offering scholarship money to the first student to say the Lord's Prayer, or pray in the name of Jesus at a graduation ceremony.
Former Navy Chaplain Dr. Chaps Klingenschmitt hosts a TV show in Colorado called "Pray in Jesus Name." He spoke on his show Tuesday about the St. Johns County issue, saying Atheists had offered scholarship money to give a free thought Atheist message at their high school graduation. He countered with an offer of his own.
"We are offering a thousand dollar reward to any high school student in St. Johns County, Florida who says Our Father, the prayer Jesus said in Matthew 5, or offers a public prayer that ends 'in Jesus name' over the school microphone at your graduation ceremony," Klingenschmitt said.
"I was very happy to hear from him," said Val Lege. "Very happy."
Lege and Kim Kendall never met until this issue brought them together at a school board meeting to argue for a student's right to free speech, even if it meant a prayer at graduation.
Lege's children are already out of school but she was vocal at the school board meeting because she supports students, some ofwhich petitioned the school board for a prayer.
"I say it is time we take a stand as a community, and support our students. That their constitutional rights don't need to be bullied," Lege said.
Kendall wouldn't object to a prayer, but doesn't care what a student selected by the student body chooses to say. She said it is all about free speech, which can't be lost.
"Whether they pray, whether they don't, it is all free speech and that is why, I am a military brat, my dad and grandfather fought in war, for our freedom of speech, no matter what it is," said Kendall.
Freedom of religion foundation attorney Andrew Seidel said his group offers their scholarship money to students who fight for separation of church and state andthey aren't offering money for a student to make an atheist speech at graduation. He said Dr. Chaps has his facts wrong, and has gone too far.
"I think it is unacceptable for any citizen to be inciting students to violate the law. Not only would giving a prayer at graduation be a violation of the Constitution but given that students don't have a forum to speak at the graduation, it would also be a violation of general law, they would have to run up and grab the microphone,"said Seidel.
Seidel said citizens should obey the law and if they don't agree with it, write to their public officials to get it changed.
Klingenschmidt wants St. Johns County residents to tell school board chairman Tommy Allen he's a coward for being unwilling to defend the free speech rights of his own students in court for fear of a lawsuit.
Kendall said if there was a lawsuit, the Liberty Counsel in Washington D.C. has offered to pay the legal fees for the school board.
Seidel meanwhile said the school board's decision was legal and correct and this push for a change in policy is an explicit intent to have prayer in school. He said the Supreme Court has continually struck down formal prayer in public high schools.