The senior class at a southern Kentucky high school gave their response Friday night to a federal judge's order banning prayer at commencement.
About 200 seniors stood during the principal's opening remarks and began reciting the Lord's Prayer, prompting a standing ovation from a standing-room only crowd at the Russell County High School gymnasium.
The thunderous applause drowned out the last part of the prayer.
The revival like atmosphere continued when senior Megan Chapman said in her opening remarks that God had guided her since childhood. Chapman was interrupted repeatedly by the cheering crowd as she urged her classmates to trust in God as they go through life.
The challenge made the graduation even better because it unified the senior class, Chapman said.
"It made the whole senior class come together as one and I think that's the best way to go out," said Chapman, who plans to attend the University of the Cumberlands with her twin sister Megan.
The graduation took place about 12 hours after a federal judge blocked the inclusion of prayer as part of Russell County High School's graduation ceremonies.
U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley granted a temporary restraining order sought by a student who didn't want prayer to be part of the graduation exercises at the south-central Kentucky school, about 110 miles southeast of Louisville.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky filed suit on behalf of the unidentified student on Tuesday.
ACLU attorney Lili Lutgens said she was pleased with the judge's order and "very proud of my client for standing up for the Constitution." Lutgens said prayer would be unconstitutional because it would endorse a specific religion and religious views.
"He did not feel that he should have to sit through government-sponsored prayer just to receive his diploma," Lutgens said of the student.
The student, through his attorney, had previously appealed to Russell County High principal Darren Gossage to cancel the prayer, a request Lutgens said the principal denied.
Keith Ellis, an assistant principal at Russell County High School, said the school has a long tradition of prayer at graduation, something that will change with the judge's ruling.
"It will definitely change what we've done in the past," Ellis said.
Russell County School Superintendent Scott Pierce called himself a "person of faith" and said he was pleased with the response to the ruling by the senior class.
"This was a good learning process for them as far as how to handle things that come along in life," Pierce said. The response of the students showed an ability to be "critical thinkers."
"They exhibited what we've tried to accomplish in 12 years of education - they have the ability to make these compelling decisions on their own," Pierce said.
Chapman said the ceremony turned out better than it would have without the controversy.
"More glory went to God because of something like that than if I had just simply said a prayer like I was supposed to," Chapman said.
Before the graduation ceremony, some students said they weren't upset with the classmate that brought the legal challenge, just disappointed that there wouldn't be a sanctioned prayer during the ceremony.
"There's no hard feelings toward him whatsoever. That was his opinion and it was something that he felt," graduating senior Mandy Chapman said.
Gabe McNeil said during a rehearsal on Thursday, other students booed the student suspected of filing the challenge when he walked across the stage.
"They've been giving him crap," McNeil said.
A sign across the street from the high school at a garden center declared "We believe in prayer" in response to the judge's ruling.
"In our little town, we've always had that prayer at commencement," said Brenda Hadley, owner of Anna's Garden. "Why not? That's part of our everyday life."
Garden center employee Angela Dick put up the sign. Dick said student prayer has always been a way of life at commencements in the rural county that bumps up against Lake Cumberland, a popular recreation area.
"I'm disappointed in a judge who won't hold up the Christian values that our country was founded on," said Dick, who was wearing a gold cross on a chain around her neck.
I can't express the feeling I got when I read this story earlier today. I just want to say thank you to each and every one of these young men and women that stood up and did what they felt was right.