They walked in tandem, each of the ninety-three students filing into the already crowded auditorium. With rich maroon gowns flowing and the traditional caps, decorated on top as was the tradition, but this year something was different. They looked almost as grown up as they felt.
Dads swallowed hard behind broad smiles, and Moms freely brushed away tears. This class would not pray during the commencements, not by choice but because of a recent court ruling prohibiting it.
The principal and several students were careful to stay within the guidelines allowed by the ruling. They gave inspirational and challenging speeches, but no one mentioned divine guidance and no one asked for blessings on the graduates or their families.
The speeches were nice, but they were routine until the final speech received a standing ovation. A solitary student walked proudly to the microphone. He stood still and silent for just a moment, and then, it happened. All 92 students, every single one of them, suddenly sneezed!
The student on stage simply looked at the audience and said, “God bless you, each and every one of you!” And he walked off stage.
The audience exploded into applause. The graduating class found a unique way to invoke God’s blessing on their future with or without the court’s approval.
The Rest of the Story: This is a popular tale shared widely on the internet and through viral emails. It is based on a true story that happened at an Illinois high school in May of 2001 during the commencement exercises at Washington Community High School in Washington, Illinois.
With the help of the ACLU, the family of Natasha Appenheimer, that year’s valedictorian, brought suit to prevent the inclusion of the invocation and benediction traditionally given at the school’s commencement ceremony. The suit was decided in the favor of the Appenheimers when, three days before the ceremony, the court handed down a temporary injunction barring the inclusion of the prayers on the basis of their having been deemed “school sponsored” (and thereby an unconstitutional violation of the first amendment’s “establishment clause”).
Though the school had said it would contest the ruling that barred it from sponsoring prayer at its graduation ceremonies, it dropped such plans in July 2001 once it came to some appreciation of how much such a legal battle might cost.