SOUTH BRISTOL, Maine — South Bristol Elementary School eighth-graders will launch their handmade skiffs next month without the traditional “blessing of the fleet” after a letter from Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State informed the school that student involvement with the historic maritime ceremony violated the First Amendment.
For 16 years, eighth-grade students at the school have visited Maine Maritime Museum in Bath every Friday during the school year to build small wooden row boats. Each June, they launch them at Bittersweet Landing, accompanied by a blessing by a pastor from the Union Congregational Church of South Bristol.
This year, the June 14 ceremony will be without the traditional prayer. Instead, a community member will give a “ceremonial launch speech” followed by the traditional smashing of a bottle over the bow, Principal Scott White wrote in a May 9 memo to staff.
Last year, the organization, whose mission is to preserve the separation of church and state, received a complaint about a prayer at the school’s ceremony. In December a lawyer for the organization sent the school a letter saying the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits public schools from sponsoring prayers at events.
“Please ensure that future school-sponsored ceremonies do not include prayers or other religious content,” the letter stated, adding that even if attendance at the launch was voluntary, prayer would still be prohibited.
White said that “we would absolutely allow students not to go if they felt uncomfortable,” but that the issue has never come up in the seven years he’s been at South Bristol Elementary School.
The school’s law firm, Drummond Woodsum, and the Maine School Management Association determined that the blessing “could be construed as a prayer. A pastor gives it, and passages in the blessing mention God and ‘Amen,’ and she does ask people to bow their heads, but it is certainly very nonsecular,” White said.
Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United, declined to name the person who lodged the complaint, but said it’s not unique.
“We certainly receive hundreds of complaints of promotion of religion at school every year,” he said, including prayers at graduations, assemblies and football games. In this case,“the particular facts are different, but the ground rules are the same: A school district cannot promote religion or sponsor prayer at school events.”
Lipper said the Supreme Court agrees with this opinion, “especially in a setting of a school when you have students who are young, impressionable and susceptible to peer pressure.”
Carroll Conley of the Christian Civic League of Maine was surprised and disappointed.
“We feel that the school’s decision is unfortunate, but it’s certainly in line with recent court decisions,” Conley said in a statement. “We see this as another example of the erosion of what were longtime accepted expressions of religious sentiment.”
White said he has no idea who complained about the blessing, but said he’s sorry the person didn’t speak to him directly.
“Evidently this person would rather hide behind a cloak of anonymity,” White said in an email. “To me, taking the focus away from the students’ accomplishments is shameful and the school will do everything possible to ensure the launching ceremony stays student-centered.”
White said the school had no choice once it received the letter. Still, he’s spoken to many people in town who are unhappy that the blessing will end.
“They’re a strong-willed people rich in tradition who want to continue this cultural experience,” he said. “We really do not have a choice. You can’t continue with a tradition that is in violation of the First or any other amendment.”
Rev. Dr. Peggy Davis of the Union Congregational Church, who has given the prayer in the past, is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“We hear them. We are aware of the concerns that they’ve raised and are considering how to move forward in a way that respects those concerns and also respects the tradition and the kids. Primarily the kids.”
Beth Brogan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Beth_Brogan.
An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect date for the launch of the skiffs. The launch is scheduled for June 14, not June 4.