On a sneeze, not a prayer, South Bristol eighth-graders launch skiffs

Posted June 14, 2013, at 5:38 p.m.

SOUTH BRISTOL, Maine — One month after Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State told South Bristol School that its annual blessing of the fleet violated the First Amendment because it included a prayer, the school’s 65 students, joined by parents, teachers and community members, gathered at Bittersweet Landing on Friday to launch their hand-built skiffs with a different but familiar ceremony.

Peggy Davis, pastor of the Union Congregational Church, spoke as “a community member,” telling the crowd of more than 100 people about the tradition of boat launch ceremonies, where people have gathered for years to name a new boat, launch it into the water and celebrate.

“This is the essence of the tradition,” she said. “The particulars may change with time. Five thousand years ago, part of the tradition was to sacrifice an ox … we don’t do that anymore, but we can still hold the essence of recognizing these new vessels and your successful work, even as we acknowledge that time and political pressures cause change.”

Immediately after Davis’ remarks, South Bristol resident Michael Nyboe, standing atop the trailer that held the two wooden skiffs, let out a great sneeze.

“God bless you,” the crowd roared on cue, then laughed with satisfaction.

In December, South Bristol School Principal Scott White received a letter from Americans United for Separation of Church and State claiming that the traditional blessing of the fleet, held each summer for boats built by eighth-grade students at the Maine Maritime Museum, was unconstitutional because the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits public schools from sponsoring prayers at events.

The letter was prompted by a complaint from an anonymous community member.

It stated, “Please ensure that future school-sponsored ceremonies do not include prayers or other religious content.”

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 in May.

Davis said Friday that she already had been invited to speak at the ceremony when the letter arrived.

“We do respect the laws, so this was really a way to have me participate,” she said. “But my words, which were carefully chosen last year, were more carefully chosen this year. It’s a community thing, and the church is part of the community.”

Eighth-grader Jordan Farrin said Friday’s crowd was larger than in previous years. Those gathered for the event — many wearing bright red T-shirts announcing “It is Tradition,” were angry and still shocked that the school had been told to change its ceremony.

“I think it was ridiculous and unnecessary,” Jonathan McKane, a part-time resident of South Bristol, said. “Don’t these people have something to do? In the Maine Legislature they say a prayer every single morning and every single night. Why is this any different? Because they can get away with it.”

“It’s sad they couldn’t have the normal blessing,” Peggy Mardosian of South Bristol and New Haven, Conn., said. “This is America. It was built on tradition and religion.”

As horns blew, the skiffs, named Tradition and Nichols and Dimes, slipped into the harbor and the five South Bristol eighth-graders rowed through the water amid cheers and applause.

“It’s South Bristol,” White said. “It’s what we do. It’s real, it’s raw and it’s fun.”