School Prayer by Random Selection

Here’s a case of random selection that I don’t believe has been discussed before. An American school held prayers at its graduation ceremonies. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State objected to this, claiming that the school was endorsing a religious perspective in doing so. It appears that the school had been permitting the student who opened the ceremony to decide whether or not to open with a prayer, but since this student was selected by majority vote (in a west Texas school district), this always led to a vote for some pro-prayer Christian. (Insert remarks about the tyranny of the majority here.) So now the school district will randomly select the student to open the graduation ceremony. The student can still make a personal decision to open with a prayer if s/he wishes. Presumably, the fact that the student choice is random means that the school district cannot be accused of endorsing the religious perspective of the prayer.

ECISD Removes Official Prayer From Graduation Ceremony After Lawsuit Threat

ODESSA – The Ector County Independent School District confirmed to CBS 7 that the Invocation and Benediction will now say “opening and closing” after concerns from American United for the Separation of Church & State.

The District says that the students who lead the opening and closing ceremony will now be randomly chosen and can choose to lead those ceremonies as they wish, including adding the traditional prayers if they so choose.

“The references to Invocation and Benediction give the impression the school or the school district are endorsing religion, which is not allowed. Those references will be changed and student speakers will be randomly drawn, according to policy FNA (Local) page 3 of 4, to give the Opening and Closing remarks at graduation,” Spokesperson Mike Adkins said in a release.

The senior class will no longer vote on whether or not to have prayer during the ceremony because that vote will not be permissible.

5 Responses

  1. If the principle were taken to its logical conclusion then any controversial political decision would be taken by drawing straws. This is entirely undemocratic, unjust and indicative of how essential it is not to conflate this sort of unaccountable non-decision (Pontius Pilate might well have used it when choosing whether to pardon Jesus or Barabbas) with the argument for representation championed frequently on this blog. I’d go so far as to say we need different terms to cover these diametrically-opposed uses of the lot, as there is no way that they can both be subsumed under a single “lottery principle”.


  2. Keith, I’m not endorsing this proposal, but from your posting, I literally have no idea what exactly you don’t like about it. If you’re going to object to something, it pays not to flail around quite so much. (I’m assuming that you’re not simply endorsing the tyranny of the majority option here.)


  3. > tyranny of the majority

    Which majority? The majority in the class that presumably would like to have a spoken prayer, or the majority of Americans that prefers “a moment of silence for contemplation or silent prayer”?


  4. Why are majority preferences necessarily tyrannical? I appreciate that the US take on religion is exceptional from a constitutional perspective, but the common-sense approach would be to go along with customary/majority preferences with exemptions for dissenting minorities. Decision-making bodies selected by sortition are just as tyrannical (assuming that the decision mechanism doesn’t require unanimity). This just goes to show how very different the prophylactic and representative take on sortition are and the impossibility of a subsuming them both within a single lottery principle — indeed that could well be viewed as a somewhat tyrannical move by the dominant faction in the sortition debate (or should I say “debate”, seeing as members of this faction rarely get involved in exchanges with their opponents).

    As for what I don’t like about your post, it’s providing a way for appointed and/or elected officials to wash their hands of difficult decisions (hence the reference to Pontius Pilate). I can’t see the moral case for such an approach, hence my querying why we should be interested in it, especially as it could well give lotteries a bad name.


  5. *** We must not consider the « Prayer problem » as a problem of majoritarian tyranny, but of civic identity and unity. The Western contemporary societies are not pagan societies, where traditional gods were not linked neither to any specific theological postulate (except their existence) nor to any denominational identity. We live in societies where at least a noticeable part of the people belong to denominational groups (Roman Catholics, Shiites, Lamaic Buddhists etc) or super-denominational groups (Christians, Moslems, Buddhists…), which correspond both to specific theological postulates and a specific identity with a memory component ; and at least in some countries as France « free-thinkers » can be practically seen as such a denomination. From a democratic point of view, the danger is in the interference of denominational identity and civic identity, and the destructive effect on civic unity of any confusion of the two identities. The « melting » of the citizenry (for the « melting » of the « dêmos » –in democracy see Aristotle Politics VI,18-19 ;1319b) implies in contemporary societies that denominational faith is a private matter.
    *** Many customs and feasts were linked to the traditional dominating faith – even if they were often taken from a pagan past. I acknowledge that they can be accepted by a democracy, as a legacy of past, but avoiding any theological component. I don’t see how it is possible for a prayer.
    ** Some will say : the Prayer is only a custom; don’t consider the words, and you can address the Prayer to a Providential Allmighty God even if you are Buddhist, or disciple of Democritus and Lucretius. This is pure contempt for the truth.
    *** Some would like to elect randomly a « magistrate » who will lead a public Prayer along his own faith, everybody doing his own privately. That would avoid to confuse civic community and denominational community. But some faiths are very strange, the Public Prayer could lead to a scandal, and practically there will be a selection of acceptable faiths and unacceptable ones, which would take us back to the same point.
    *** “A moment of silence for contemplation or silent prayer” looks a better solution from a civic point of view.


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