For the last 18 years, a group of eighth-grade students from South Bristol Elementary School in Lincoln County have built two wooden skiffs at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath and celebrated their graduation from middle school by launching the boats at a local boatyard.
But this year, school officials and students won’t be reciting prayers or blessing the boats during the fishing community’s traditional launch ceremony set for Friday, June 14.
The Central Lincoln County School System has been threatened with a lawsuit by a Washington, D.C.-based organization called Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The organization claims a portion of the ceremony violates the U.S. Constitution.
Gregory M. Lipper, a senior litigation counsel for Americans United, said his group received a complaint last year — Lipper refused to identify the complainant — pointing out that the South Bristol school has been inviting a pastor to deliver a brief prayer or blessing at the boat launch ceremony.
Lipper said the inclusion of a prayer or blessing at a school-sponsored event violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has made it very clear that public schools cannot sponsor prayers at school events,” Lipper said. “Those students have the right to celebrate their boat launch without being exposed to religious prayers they may not believe in. The younger the child, the more impressionable they are.”
Americans United sent a letter, dated Dec. 12, to the school district asking that it not include a prayer at the boat launch ceremony.
“Whether the boat launch ceremony is a mandatory classroom exercise or an optional extracurricular add-on, the school district may not include prayer whether delivered by an invited pastor or anyone else,” the letter states.
A period of time passed before a second letter, dated May 1, was sent to the school district demanding that it confirm the boat launch ceremony not feature prayers.
Steven Bailey, superintendent of the Central Lincoln County School System, said Tuesday that the South Bristol School Board last week reached agreement — no formal vote was taken — to exclude prayers from the launch ceremony.
Bailey said that traditionally a pastor has recited a blessing, asking for safe passage of the boats that were built by the students. That will not be the case when the boats are launched from the Bittersweet Landing boatyard in South Bristol.
“We want the attention to be on the students and their accomplishments, and we want to make sure that what we are doing is the right thing,” Bailey said.
Bailey said a local pastor, the Rev. Dr. Peggy Davis of the Union Congregational Church, has been invited to make celebratory remarks about the students’ achievements.
“Her remarks will not include a prayer,” Bailey said.
Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said the school district took the appropriate legal step.
“With the recent court rulings we believe the school district has acted prudently. That doesn’t mean we have to like it,” Conley said.
Conley said he views the threat of court action by Americans United as another step toward what he called “an erosion of public religious expression.”
Scott White, principal of South Bristol Elementary School, said all five of his eighth-grade students participated in Maine Maritime Museum’s South Bristol Discovery Boat Building Program this year.
The program was established in 1994 and is now part of the curriculum of each eighth-grade class.
Each student spends Fridays at the Bath museum working on a wooden skiff or dinghy.
At the launch ceremony, each boat will be named and hit with a bottle of sparkling cider. Cannons will be fired, songs sung, and several people will speak during the event.
White said the reaction among students at the 62-student elementary school has been mixed.
Some students can understand on constitutional grounds why a change had to be made, while others sided with Americans United.
“It’s become more an adult issue than it has a student issue,” White said.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: