The perennial issue of the co-existence of government and religion surfaced recently in South Bristol. Eighth-graders were prepared to have a pastor say a prayer at the June launching ceremony for their handmade wooden row boats, as has been done for 16 years. That is, until they learned May 9 that the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State had sent a letter to school administrators explaining why the “blessing of the fleet” at a school-sanctioned event would be unconstitutional.

South Bristol School Principal Scott White and Superintendent Steven Bailey likely protected their school district from a lawsuit when they decided to hold the ceremony without a prayer. It doesn’t matter how nondenominational the prayer is or how many years it’s been said. If it is part of a school-sponsored activity, even if attendance is voluntary, it violates the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment.

Religion is a core part of many people’s life experiences. It is personal and emotional. For those reasons, governments — and, by extension, public schools — do not endorse a religion. By doing so they protect the practice of all religions. James Madison — who drafted the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and became the fourth president of the United States — made it clear that promoting a particular religion was beyond the purview of limited government.

In opposition to a bill that would have required a tax to support religion teachers, Madison wrote in 1785 that it is a “fundamental and undeniable truth” that “religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The government cannot dictate religious faith, he said, for if faith comes, it comes from one’s self.

Just as the Constitution protects the rights of people to not have religion imposed on them, it protects the rights of people to practice on their own. If students want to pray in school, they can pray. If they want to form a group within school to pray, they can do that, too. The prayer just cannot be organized by public school administrators.

The U.S. Supreme Court case Lee v. Weisman made this clear. The defendant, a student named Deborah Weisman, asserted that a nondenominational prayer said by a rabbi at a public school graduation in Rhode Island violated the First Amendment. The school asserted that because the ceremony was voluntary, and because Weisman did not have to participate in the prayer, it was acceptable. But the court rejected the school’s argument.

“The government involvement with religious activity in this case is pervasive, to the point of creating a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school. Conducting this formal religious observance conflicts with settled rules pertaining to prayer exercises for students, and that suffices to determine the question before us,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the court ’s opinion, given in 1992.

The boat-building program in South Bristol connects students to an industry that has defined their community for generations. What also defines their town, state and country are protections for those who have or do not have a religious faith. The prayer at the ceremony may be a tradition, but the school district made the correct decision to follow another long-standing national tradition, and constitutional requirement, and keep separate the functions of church and state.