An anonymous complaint and a stern letter from attorneys with a Washington, D.C. organization has forced South Bristol School to end an annual maritime tradition.
Every year, SBS eighth-graders participate in a boat-building program at Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. At the end of the year, the students launch their boats in South Bristol after a brief ceremony.
The ceremony typically consists of celebratory speeches, a song or two and a blessing of the fleet before the students christen the boats and enjoy their maiden voyage around the pier.
Future ceremonies, however, including the June 14 launch, will not feature a blessing.
An anonymous complaint brought the blessing of the fleet to the attention of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that describes itself as “dedicated to preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation as the only way to ensure religious freedom for all Americans.”
Americans United directed the school to discontinue the process in a December 2012 letter.
“Because the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits public schools from sponsoring prayers at school events, please ensure that future school-sponsored ceremonies do not include prayer or other religious content,” the letter states.
Central Lincoln County School System Superintendent Steve Bailey responded to the letter in a Jan. 15 email.
“[W]hile the long mariner history of the ‘blessing of the fleet’ has deep roots in this community and up and down the coast, we understand the concern expressed in your letter,” Bailey said. “Future school-sponsored ceremonies will not include prayer or other religious content.”
The exchange became public with a May 10 report by Portland CBS affiliate WGME 13. The story has sparked debate in the community and an enormous social media response.
SBS Principal Scott White summarized the debate in a May 14 interview.
After 16 years of boat launches, the blessing of the fleet is a community ritual, White said, and the complaint “causes the majority of the people to feel upset that the rights of the minority are overriding the rights of the majority.”
“The other point of view is that this organization is actually attempting to preserve the very rights that our forefathers put together in our constitution,” White said.
White sees both sides. “I don’t feel that we are promoting, enhancing or inhibiting religion by having the blessing of the fleet, but I can see how somebody can feel that we are,” he said.
The blessing of the fleet is a “general message that honors the hard work” of the students, recognizes the launch as the culmination of their efforts “and, in keeping with maritime tradition, hoping the boat floats and keeps all her passengers safe going out and coming from sea,” he said. “I would not characterize it as a sermon, but there has been a mention of God and ‘amen’ and that has been the case for many years.”
He acknowledges that SBS, as a public school, has a strict set of rules to follow.
“I would characterize church and state as mingling with each other rather than having an excessive entanglement … but even that mingling is enough to have our attorneys indicate that we need to make this change,” White said.
The principal and his staff are trying to turn what has largely been perceived as a negative story into a civics lesson for the eighth grade.
The students are learning about the First Amendment and the intent of the founding fathers to protect the citizens of the new country from religious persecution.
Each student was assigned to write a letter to Americans United stating their opinion and supporting their argument with details.
“Some students were very passionate that the blessing should remain,” White said. “Some people were understanding of the need to change based on the constitutionality of it, and some students weren’t sure where they stood on the issue.”
White sees good and bad in the media interest and the overwhelming response to the story online.
The fierce and open debate is a worthwhile exercise in free speech, another right in the first amendment. “In an ironic twist, it is upholding what our forefathers wanted because we’re able to argue points freely, respectfully, with dignity and without being persecuted like some other countries used to be and still are,” White said.
He fears, however, that the issue robs the focus from the students and their new skiffs, not to mention all the other good work of the students and the school.
“A great deal of work has been accomplished all year and to have the light shine on the blessing of the fleet or to have it or to not have it, it takes away from where the spotlight should be,” White said.
SBS was one of only three schools in Lincoln County to receive an A from the Department of Education in the A-F grades released May 1.
“We have very high standards in both behavior and academics and we consistently live up to those,” White said.
“I can’t tell you how proud we are of our school and the work we do,” White said. The Department of Education grade focuses on test scores, but the school also takes pride in its unique programs, including a marine biology program at the Darling Marine Center and, of course, the boat-building program.
This year, the launch ceremony will take place Friday, June 14 at 1 p.m. at Bittersweet Landing Boatyard, 17 Landing Lane, South Bristol.
There will be no blessing of the fleet, but a community volunteer will give a “ceremonial launch speech” to wish the boats well on their maiden voyage.
White declined to say who would deliver the speech or what it would look like. The school plans to preview the speech prior to the launch.
“The main focus of the launch has always been and will always be celebrating the efforts of the students and the launching of the boats they built with their very hands, and we’ll do whatever we can to ensure that remains the focus of the ceremony,” White said.
White said he believes the school is doing the right thing. The school could continue the blessing of the fleet and find itself in a protracted court battle.
“What we don’t want to do is be in a situation that we’re going to spend any tax dollars fighting this just to maintain a tradition that’s taking place,” White said. “Again, I believe that takes away the focus of the event and puts it in the wrong direction.”
Others in the community are less willing to sacrifice the ritual.
Mark Preston lives in South Bristol and is the father of two SBS students, a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader, Julianna Preston, who is currently in the boat-building program.
“She loves it. I’d say it’s been a real highlight of her time at the school,” Mark Preston said. “She’s been there nine years and when she was much younger she talked about how she couldn’t wait until she was in eighth grade to build the boats.”
Preston strongly disagrees with Americans United on a number of counts.
“I think they’re misunderstanding what’s happening here,” he said. “In my mind, it is not a religious exercise, it’s a traditional exercise.”
“To me, it’s simply a celebration of the tradition of South Bristol’s seafaring heritage,” he said. “This town has been a seafaring town since its inception. The town evolved as a result of fishing and boat building.”
“I see it as a rightful, traditional exercise, a celebration of the cultural and traditional heritage of this town,” he said.
Preston has attended South Bristol School Committee meetings and contacted media outlets across the state and beyond to draw attention to what he views as an injustice.
“I myself am not a religious person,” he said, “so for me, certainly it is not a campaign to bring religion to the public school.”
Preston points to other, perhaps more conspicuous examples of religion in school and public life.
Students recite the pledge of allegiance in school, which refers to “one nation under God.” It would be difficult to have a school without the exchange of lots of bills and coins bearing the words “in God we trust,” and Congress often hears a prayer before beginning the day’s work.
“Now, if they want to say [the blessing of the fleet is] proselytizing in the name of religion, they better go sue the U.S. Mint,” Preston said. “Why don’t these people sue the U.S. Congress?”
Preston also objects to the Americans United action on the grounds of autonomy or self-government.
“I cannot understand why these people in Washington have appointed themselves to interfere in our affairs,” he said. “I see it as entirely unwarranted and entirely without merit.”
Preston said he would feel differently, to some extent, if the complaint had not been anonymous.
“It’s an opinion I can respect if someone comes to the people in the town or the school in whatever way seems appropriate and just says what they have to say,” Preston said.
Instead, “They decided to effectively snitch to a watchdog that has presumably greater resources and more time to devote to this stuff,” he said.
Now, because of the complaint, “lawyers have made it into a cold and calculated legal proceeding as opposed to something that has a human face and a human context and a cultural and local context that involves real people and real ideas,” Preston said.
“A great many people in this town feel exactly the same way I do,” he said.