The newest entrant in the World’s Most Incompetent Principal sweepstakes is Stacey Pullen of Bastrop, LA. Here’s the story: on Tuesday of this week, Ms. Pullen received an e-mail from a student who identified himself as an atheist. The student, who turns out to be graduating senior Damon Fowler, threatened to call the ACLU if the traditional prayer was included in the commencement ceremony. [Note: Fowler says in his Reddit account that he contacted the superintendent rather than (in addition to?) the principal.] After consulting with the school’s attorneys, Pullen decided to change the program. Speaking of programs, in the other sense of that term, the late decision also required re-printing the written documents describing the evening’s events at an “undetermined” cost.
So far, with the exception of having had a quite likely unconstitutional prayer as part of the graduation proceedings for rather a long time, no doubt, Principal Pullen had done nothing wrong. Jack Marshall is a lawyer and I’m not, so I’m going to believe him that prayer per se is not inherently unconstitutional. But here’s where our commentaries diverge: Marshall argues that the prayer might well have been legal, and that Fowler acted legally but unethically in insisting that his wishes not to have a prayer ought to trump those of the overwhelming majority who wanted one, and that, after all, a two-minute prayer is unlikely to do him lasting harm.
I, on the other hand, would point to the ready capitulation of the school after consulting with their lawyers, suggesting that there’s not only a really good chance that this particular manifestation of prayer not only is illegal now, but has been for some time. Laws, especially those dealing with rights defined by the Bill of Rights, need to be enforced even when no one complains: relegating African-Americans to the back of the bus wasn’t ethically supportable the day before Rosa Parks refused to move any more than it was the day after. If the school felt its actions were legal, of course, the correct course of action would have been to tell young Fowler that he was free to call the ACLU or anyone else, but there was going to be a prayer as part of graduation.
Moreover, I have a little experience with this sort of thing. I’ve never spoken at a graduation, but I was asked to deliver the invocation at the Honor Banquet my senior year. I was given strict instructions, however, not to privilege a particular religion over another, or indeed over no religion at all. That was 38 years ago; I might have hoped we’d have moved forward rather than backwards as a nation in terms of diversity in the intervening years.
But here’s the real kicker. It was the world’s worst-kept secret that a crowd of loud pseudo-Christians were conspiring to co-opt the moment of silence that had been substituted for the prayer and to turn it right back, not only into a prayer, but frankly into a rather nasty, divisive, one masquerading as something remotely inclusive. Note: prayers offered in humility to invoke God’s blessing are not greeted with whoops and cheers. I should mention that the video linked above is actually from what appears to have been the best-attended graduation rehearsal in history. But the graduation ceremony itself also included a senior girl, Laci Mae Mattice, detouring from the prescribed moment of silence to offer up the Lord’s Prayer, leading the audience in its recitation “if they wanted to,” presumably with Pullen standing mutely by. They might not be good at much at Bastrop High, but whoever teaches their course in Disingenuous is remarkably proficient.
As noted, the plans to carry out this little religious insurgency were public knowledge. Fowler had written about them: “they're talking about organizing a large vocal prayer during the moment of silence despite what I've done.” No, Damon, because, not despite. So Pullen had to have known, too. And rather than take over the moment of silence herself, or to take the microphone away from the girl who so smugly disobeyed the principal’s decision, Stacey Pullen did bupkes. Twice! Once at the rehearsal and again at the actual ceremony. Or, rather, she facilitated the whole charade by giving the floor over to the sanctimonious little brat who proceeded to do what everyone knew she was going to do.
Pullen, in other words, was either so incompetent she didn’t know what was going to happen, based on what student was given charge over the “moment of silence,” or she actively participated in undermining the intent, if not the letter, of the law. This latter possibility, which I suspect is the more likely scenario, consists of a smirky nudge-nudge-wink-wink born out of petulance towards Fowler and a seething contempt for real American—or Christian—values.
In the words of Louisiana ACLU Executive Director Marjorie S. Esman,
Public school officials must remember that they have a duty to uphold the law, to protect the rights of all of their students, and that any failure to do so costs money that should be spent in the classroom. Religious freedom has flourished in this country because we do not allow the government to promote one faith over others.That sure sounds reasonable to me.
People who know me know that one of my favorite compliments is that a given individual is “good at his/her job.” I apply this to everyone from actors to veterinarians to waitresses, and it is an expression of great respect, whatever the job in question. It may be, as Jack Marshall writes, that Damon Fowler might grow up to be a jerk. He might even be one now. But Stacey Pullen is far worse: she is either colossally ignorant of her own students or a contemptible co-conspirator in a coordinated effort to embarrass one of her own seniors at his own graduation. Either way, she’s not good at her job.