I Was A Teenage Civil Libertarian

June 2, 1999 12:00 am

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CALVERT COUNTY, MD – Nick Becker walked out of his high school graduation in protest when a defiant group of thousands ignored a school ban on prayer and chanted aloud in unison, insisting that God be part of the ceremony.

When he tried to return to the ceremony to collect his diploma, he was detained in a squad car and threatened with arrest by state police, The Washington Post reported. School officials — saying they feared he might disrupt the school sponsored cruise around Baltimore harbor–barred him from the graduation party for which he’d already bought a ticket.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland told the Post yesterday that an emotional majority trampled over the lone teenage boy and the Constitution.

“A student was arrested because he disagreed with the majority and he tried to address that in a responsible way,” said ACLU of Maryland attorney Suzanne Smith, adding that she considered the fact that police detained Becker, 18, equivalent to arrest. No charges have been filed against Becker, although state police Lt. George McKeon said yesterday a complaint might still be forthcoming.

“The real loser here is the Constitution and the right of people to express dissent,” Smith told the Post, adding that the ACLU is investigating the incident. “I’m appalled by this.”

According to the Post, the state attorney general’s office sided with the ACLU and Becker and advised Calvert officials to drop the prayer because it violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

Julie Schenk, Becker’s 17-year-old classmate who was delivering the commencement address, agreed to change her prayer to a “time for reflection,” that did not mention God, said the Post. When she asked for 30 seconds of silence and the audience of about 4,000 rose, a loud male voice began, “Our Father, who art in heaven . . . “

The Post reports that when Becker tried to go back inside through the front door to get a friend, he was told by police he could not reenter. Calvert County school policy bars any student who leaves a school event from returning. Becker walked around the building and tried to get in through a side door and was blocked by police again.

“I told the cop I’m getting my diploma,” Becker told the Post. “He said, ‘You’re not going back in.’ He walked me over to the car, put me in the front of the patrol car and said he was going to give me a citation for failing to obey a lawful order.”

Becker was released to his parents, who had come outside by that point, McKeon said. According to the Post, school officials gave Becker his diploma and the family went home. Becker was barred from a post-graduation boat cruise for which he had paid $45. Superintendent James R. Hook also said he could not participate in the party because he did not take part in the graduation ceremony. Hook told the Post that his money would be refunded.

Nick Becker is well known at school for his independent streak. In his junior year, he was forced by school officials to wash his hair in a sink because he came to school with his brown hair sculpted into “Liberty spikes” that resemble the Statue of Liberty’s crown.

According to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and was about to be disciplined until the ACLU intervened on his behalf. Becker plans to attend the University of Maryland-Baltimore County in the fall to study film.

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