Public high school principal prays at graduation

May 31, 2014 • 8:17 am

Here’s Kevin Lowery, Principal of Lebanon High School in Lebanon, Missouri, giving an address at his school’s graduation. This extended riff on the religious nature of the U.S. is an apparent protest of court decisions deeming it illegal for school officials to pray at school functions.

Lowery brandishes U.S. paper currency to flaunt its “In God We Trust Motto,” and then, at 2:00, offers a moment of silence (a common way around prayer restrictions). After breaking the silence, he tells the audience that during his moment of silence, he gave thanks to God.

This is clearly a violation of the First Amendment. Since I’m the Discovery Institute’s official Censor of the Year, I might as well tell you that I’ve contacted not only Prnicipal Lowery, but also members of the Lebanon School Board and the Superintendent of Schools (see my email below). Oh, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation as well.

Remember, this is truly a slippery slope: if we let even small violations of this kind slide, it becomes easier for the courts to say that they’re “traditional.” Our silence also conveys the message that this kind of stuff is okay.

Here’s the contact information should you wish to do something (it’s easy to cut and paste from my email below):

Contact information:

Lebanon High School
777 Brice Street
Lebanon, Missouri 65536
(417) 532-9144

Kevin Lowery
(main office)

Dr. Duane Widhalm – Superintendent


School board members:

John Carr (
Member (April 2011 – April 2017)

Ken Eldridge
Member (April 2013 – April 2016)

Sherry Headley (
Member (April 2011 – April 2017)

Jeremiah Hough (
Member (April 2013 – April 2016)

Kim Light (
Member (April 2008 – April 2017)

Robert O’Neil (
President (April 2009 – April 2015)

Jason Riggs (
Vice-President (April 2006 – April 2015)

To wit:


Subject: Inappropriate religious proselytizing during graduation


Dear Mr. Widhalm and Lebanon School Board members,

I recently watched a YouTube video, located at , showing a graduation ceremony during which the principal of Lebanon High School, Mr. Kevin Lowery, blatantly disregarded the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to impose his religious beliefs on a captive audience. He flaunts a piece of U.S. currency, noting its motto “In God We Trust,” without mentioning that that motto was not added until 1956.  He cites “God” in the U.S. Declaration of Independence but doesn’t mention that because our founders wished to erect a wall between Church and State in our young country, there is no mention of “God” in the Constitution.

What is most offensive is that Mr. Lowery not only called for a moment of silence (a common way around the prohibition of prayer in public schools), but then told the audience that he used his own moment of silence to ask for God’s blessing.

Lowery’s behavior during that graduation ceremony is a flagrant violation of the First Amendment, and of court decisions that prayer in public schools by officials of those schools is illegal. Apparently, by making a public display of his faith, Mr. Lowery wished to voice his disdain for those rulings, and for our Constitution.

Your students should not have been subjected to this unseemly and unconstitutional display. Do you think it is appropriate to foist religious beliefs on an audience that may include nonbelievers?

I’ve reported this violation to the Freedom From Religion Foundation for further legal investigation, but I would appreciate hearing whether Mr. Lowery’s display was sanctioned or approved by the Lebanon School Board, even in retrospect. If not, I would appreciate hearing how you are going to deal with this Constitutional violation. Can you assure us that this will never occur again?

Jerry Coyne
Professor, Dept. of Ecology and Evolution
The University of Chicago

h/t: Amy

64 thoughts on “Public high school principal prays at graduation

  1. At the risk of going off topic… Is it weird that three of seven board members are from banks (looking at email addresses)? I have to admit ignorance on the make-up of school boards.

    1. Yeah, that struck me as odd too.
      If Jesus comes down to one of them at work (see previous message, in the next thread, calculating Jesus’s approximate orbital parameters), then he’s likely to be mis-recognised as being someone attempting to rob the bank with high explosives. Could be hard to explain if no-one recognises him afterwards, what with the craters, falling masonry, smell of burned body hair and absence of clothing on Jeebus. Even worse, if one of the responding officers were a Muslim (or Jew, or Wiccan), and really didn’t recognise him. But I don’t suppose the last is terribly likely.

    2. I’d say that it’s odd that they’re using their professional email for school business. Not only is this a possible violation of their employers’ email or security policies, but also it exposes potentially confidential school business to monitoring by their employers.


  2. If you aren’t willing to adjust your confidence of your hypothesis with new pieces of evidence, for or against, you have abandoned reason.

    And obviously leads to behavior like this insisting that this imaginary friend exists and must be publicly worshiped and acknowledged.

    1. Oh, you’ve read my Jeebus descending post (next story) too. Neat that, reading it before I wrote it.

  3. Believe it or not, I graduated from Lebanon High School in 1972. Out of the senior class of 200, only 10% of the students went on to college or technical schools. Lebanon is a small town in the northern part of the Missouri Ozarks, a very pretty but poor part of the country. The county and city elected officials almost all run unopposed as Republicans. I haven’t been back there for more than ten years and may never go back. It’s a great place to be from, if you catch my drift.

  4. Every year the State of New Jersey holds a ceremony to honor employees who have distinguished themselves by numerous years of public service or extraordinary service (such as bravery, saving lives, etc). A few years ago I was invited to honor my then 25 years as a civil servant and I attended the event, which was held at a filled-to-capacity War Memorial Building in Trenton. The pomp and circumstance included a moment where we were asked to bow our heads in a prayer led by a member of clergy (as opposed to a moment of silence). I was appalled at this at a state ceremony. I vowed to do something but am sorry to admit that I never did. I suspect the same happens at the ceremony every year, which I believe is held in June, so the opportunity to object still exists. Is this the type of thing to which the Discovery Institute’s official censor of the year would also be interested in officially objecting?

  5. The FFRF could send them a letter, but I think that they might need a member of that captive audience to complain if they want to take it further.

    1. And that member will have to compose her-/himself to bear up under local (community/peer pressure)^3.

      1. There is such an audience member who has complained to the ACLU and the FFRF (commenter “Fishy” at #16 below as well as two comments below that. Fishy is a brave person, and I hope he/she is willing to be part of a formal complaint against the school district.

  6. By the way, here’s what I wrote to the principal and superintendent:

    Dear Sirs,

    I have a special reason for contacting you regarding the recent graduation address by Mr. Lowery. I attended just such a ceremony more than 40 years ago, in 1972 when I graduated from LHS. As an alumni I would like to add my voice to those who have denounced this blatant violation of the First Amendment. Please imagine yourself as a member of a non-Christian faith or even someone who doesn’t belong to any church or organized religion. Having the views of a faith they don’t believe in forced on them is what the founders of the US had in mind when they added the First Amendment to the Constitution.

    In the future, please refrain from showing support for one particular religion or belief system over any other. I have traveled far from Lebanon, both physically and metaphorically, but I still remember growing up there and the lazy days of summer vacation that are here now, driving up Jefferson and along Commercial Street and going out Highway 32 to Bennett Springs. It is a wonderful American town and it saddens me to see such an unAmerican address as the one given by Mr. Lowery, one which ignores the inclusiveness the US is famous for.

    Okay, I stretched the truth a bit there–it’s not a particularly wonderful town, but you gotta say something nice!

    1. Please imagine yourself as a member of a non-Christian faith or even someone who doesn’t belong to any church or organized religion.

      … and that’s where it falls down. They can’t (1) imagine and (2) the rest of it about religions sort of slides through the shattered remnants of their minds, barely touching the (closed) sides.

      Having the views of a faith they don’t believe in forced on them is what the founders of the US had in mind when they added the First Amendment to the Constitution.

      Hmmm, I’m a bit hazy on my foreign history (their-story?) but, weren’t the people who left Britain for America either convicts or religious communities fleeing Britain in order to be allowed to exercise their religious prejudices, instead of having to obey the laws of Britain and treat people more-or-less equally.
      Ah, I got it – I’m getting confused between “constitutional signatories” and “founding fathers”. Or something like that. A century or so of difference.

        1. Which state was that? Scotland, England, or Winstanley’s short-lived Leveller anti-state? (Or was Winstanley one of the Diggers? Or one of the other … interesting … groups of the time?)

          1. [[ Many colonies, for example, had provisions limiting public office to “Trinitarian Protestants” and other types of laws designed to prop up the religious sentiments of the politically powerful. Some colonies had officially established churches and taxed all citizens to support them, whether they were members or not. Dissenters faced imprisonment, torture and even death. These arrangements led to bitterness and sectarian division. Many people began agitating for an end to “religious tests” for public office, tax subsidies for churches and other forms of state endorsement of religion. Those who led this charge were not anti-religion. Indeed, many were members of the clergy and people of deep piety. They argued that true faith did not need or want the support of government. ]]



  7. This is why I hate “In glop We Trust” on money. I don’t care about the bills themselves, but the fact that every idiot uses it to claim that all other Constituional violations are fine.

  8. We really need to get “In God we Trust” off of the money. Too many people take it as a sign that we do indeed have an official religion, and it’s their religion.

    1. And even if I believed in that man, I still wouldn’t trust him. I mean, before you know it that wanker floods your garden!

      1. That brought an entirely different, stickier, image to mind then you intended. I hope.

    2. Precisely. The citizens who put to lie the ‘ceremonial deism’ are those who most strongly support it.

      Those of us who want to get rid of it keep pointing it out, but the courts continue to stick their heads in the sand, or flat out lie, whichever the case may be.

  9. The Supreme Court has still refused to take it up as a case. But, looking at the rulings four decades ago that it isn’t used to promote religion, it seems time to revisit it. Clearly, the phrase is blatantly used to promote religion in this case. Maybe events like this, or even this one in particular can gather enough steam to show that this is indeed happening on a regular basis.

    1. It has certainly had the effect of promoting religion, which should be enough to get it reversed

  10. I was an audience member at this event, and my graduating daughter was very offended and upset by this. I’ve already contacted the ACLU about this. Thank you for your blog post.

      1. Already done!

        I was pretty enraged about the whole event. The strong audience cheers are only going to further ostracize the students who don’t share his belief. It is inappropriate and rude to shame students at their own graduation ceremony for being different–intentional or not.

        1. Good to hear! I was often that kid in the audience made to feel bad. I hope to read that the FFRF is investigating soon!

        2. Hearty fist-pumps! Yay Fishy!

          Am especially hoping the FRFF puts the fear of God directly into Mr. Lowery. Would be especially nice if personal pocketbooks were tapped every time crap like this happened. Public officials really need to know better in advance, or get busted straight out of public officialdom.

          (or if public coffers need be exhausted, having it come out of the football depts., which tend to be the biggest breeding grounds of religious bigotry in addition to their being the most well-financed)

        3. I can’t imagine having had my principal treat me with such contempt at my graduation. I’m sorry that this milestone in your daughter’s life has been tarnished.

          1. At least 70%, probably more. It was the strongest cheer of the evening.

            Hence why I am using an alias. It’s a community that would honestly react quite negatively if known that I had contacted anyone in any way.

  11. ” He cites “God” in the U.S. Declaration of Independence……”
    “God” isn’t mentioned in the DoI. It says that “All men are endowed by their Creator….” which is a rather more vague and open to interpretation.
    Now, the FF could have put “God” and “Jesus” all over the DoI and the Constitution when they wrote them. It was common for all governments at that time to do so. It is almost like they were sending a clear unequivocal message to the American people.

    1. Apparently the American people – most of them – have been too thick to get the message. Maybe it’s time for the government to dissolve the people and elect a new one. 🙂

    2. Now, the FF could have put “God” and “Jesus” all over the DoI and the Constitution when they wrote them.

      I thought that “founding Fathers” referred to the Pilgrim Bigots, the conscripts and transported prisoners, etc in the 17th century, and the terrorist rebels and people who wrote the constitution in the next century were “Constitutional Signatories.” Or is this just a confusion that seeps to this side of the Atlantic, and is utterly unambiguous on the American side?

      1. As someone who graduated from a rural public school in the Midwest, I only heard Founding Fathers used in reference to the Constitutional Signatories and Revolutionary War participants. The 17th century 1st wave immigrants were generally called Pilgrims, Settlers, or Colonists to the best of my recollection.

        I think it has something to do with our national identity being formed at the time of the Revolution, leading that to be considered the founding of the country rather than the physical settling of the land. The settlers/pilgrims are not considered Americans (in my experience), but are identified instead by their country of origin.

        1. That seems pretty clear. By the time it gets to this side of the pond, the terminology gets rather muddled, being all post-Civil (ha!) War stuff. I’ve won beer vouchers in pub quizzes for being able to correctly date the US terrorist uprising. I mean “War of Independence” ; it’s not a piece of foreign history that most people care about.

  12. I emailed the board member (Kim Light) who wrote the rude non-reply back to Jerry. I politely informed him of his responsibility to ensure that school staff do not push their religion onto students.
    I told him there would likely be a reminder in the form of a lawsuit if they don’t put a new policy in place.

    I hate to see small town superstitions and bigotry go unchallenged.

    1. If the school district supports the principal in his illegal promotion of his particular franchise of superstition, then it is an escalation of the case.

      It’s hard (but not impossible) to believe that a school district would be so stupid as to defend or even fight to retain, their illegal conduct.

      Plenty of other stupid school districts have burned up taxpayers’ money fighting in court, and lost. This was a recent one: . There was a prayer banner that the Rhode Island school district would not take down.

      The school district lost the case, and were required to pay the ACLU $150K. The school pupil who brought the complaint was given police protection, and the local congressman called her “an evil little thing” – a measure of what poor reps some of us have. Public schools always lose when they try to push their brand of religion – it is against the law.

    2. ‘Be careful with the word “sanctioned.” . . . is that good or bad?’

      I’ve heard the word used both ways. Confusing.

  13. Thank you for sharing this I was present during his speech and although I understand what he was trying to do. His behavior shows that he doesn’t care if there were any other religious groups there or not and that the whole community is behind him in his prejudice. The graduation shouldntve included what he said or any religious beliefs that were incorporated.

    1. If you were there, you may want to contact the Freedom From Religion foundation to let them know, as they might, in the future, need people of standing (who are anonymous) to support a complaint.

  14. I attended graduation at Lebanon high school in 2013. I do not think this was the speech because I distinctly remember Mr Lowery saying that he was not supposed to pray, but if he did, “this is what it would sound like”. I was so proud of his courage and faith. I do not know him personally, but it is an honor that I can call him brother because of our shared faith.
    There was not a peep of dissent in the auditorium that night. Nobody would have dared to protest amid the thunderous approval shown to Mr Lowery.

    I work in the prison system. I do not get pay or benefits, I am a volunteer. However I am regarded by the state as a valuable resource. I am a volunteer bringing support of my faith into the prison. I am Christian, but any faith can be represented if someone wishes to volunteer. The offenders have to be given the privilege to worship as they desire within the constraints of safety and security. And aside from the Nation of Islam, the DOC finds faith based programs to be an excellent aid in rehabilitation of offenders.

    Perhaps if we used faith as guidance for our young people in school, and as a guideline for government; as our founders did, we would not be placing so much energy into the rehabilitation of offenders in the prison system.

    And for you non believers, what are you so afraid of. If Hell is real, you cant avoid it by trying to take Haven from us. We are not going to be deterred by your fears that there is a power greater than man. God IS NOT DEAD. He loves you enough that his son died a terrible death for your chance to live a life much greater than the one you have hear on earth. It is your choice not to take that gift in exchange for whatever miserable rewards you perceive gaining in this life. We tell of our choice because we want to share the rich gifts given to us by our savior with you. Even when you show us hate, we will offer you love.

    1. “Even when you show us hate, we will offer you love.”

      That doesn’t seem very true. It is not very loving to make students feel unwelcome at their own graduation.

      Then there are the attacks that follow when the persecuted minorities try to stand up for their rights as protected by the constitution. Also not a great example of love.

      (As you yourself ominously state, “no one would have dared to protest”. Of course in this case at least four students who were there have dared to protest, many of them anonymously to avoid persecution. Indeed, this is an act of bravery. So where is the love you claim to offer?)

      “This wasn’t the speech, I was there in 2013 and it was different.”
      Right, it is 2014 now.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *