Student suing school district over graduation prayer

Max Nielson, 18, is suing Lexington-Richland School District Five.

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WACH) - When Irmo High School graduates walked across the stage to accept their diplomas this week one of them says he felt like he wasn't part of the process.

Max Nielson has filed a lawsuit against Lexington-Richland School District Five for allowing prayer at the graduation ceremony.

Before he got his diploma at graduation exercises Wednesday, one of Nielson's classmates read a commencement prayer in front of the crowd.

The student read a prayer that said in part, "Father, we come today once again asking for your guidance, protection, and mercy."

Nielson, who describes himself as an atheist, says the Christian prayer not only excluded him, but also other classmates who are not of the Christian faith.

"It was definitely a feeling of alienation while the prayer was being given," said Nielson. "I just locked eyes with the superintendent and sat there pretty uncomfortably and let the time pass and did my best to enjoy the rest of the graduation."

The 18-year-old says he appealed to school officials about substituting a moment of silence for the prayer. That request was denied. Nielson also points out the lawsuit he's filing with the Freedom from Religion Foundation against the school district isn't about religion.

"This entirely for me is about the Constitution," said Nielson. "I'm a huge supporter of religious rights for every individual and every citizen. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs so long as it's not government-supported."

Lexington-Richland School District Five superintendent Dr. Steve Hefner stands by the decision to include prayer in the graduation ceremony.

"While I am a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state, I do not believe that freedom of religion should be interpreted as requiring freedom from religion within the public schools," said Hefner in a statement. "The decision to offer a prayer at our graduations was initiated by and offered by students, who in so doing were exercising their freedom of religion, with the School District's only involvement being administrative as far as the distribution and counting of the ballots."

Irmo High School students voted to include the prayer reading in Wednesday's commencement. Nielson voted against the proposal.

The teen's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Columbia, does not specify any kind of monetary damages. The Eagle Scout says he doesn't want any money, instead he wants change.

"The endgame, I'm hoping is that the policy that allows for this kind of offensive action and exclusionary action at graduation is taken out."

Nielson plans to attend the College of Charelston in the fall where he plans to study political science.