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No 'Blessing of the Fleet' for Maine Student Boat Launching
05/17/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

A handful of eighth-grade students from mid-coast Maine have found themselves at the center of a constitutional flap over First Amendment rights. At issue is the so-called "Blessing of the Fleet," when the kids launch boats they built themselves into the ocean. The annual ceremony is usually accompanied by a short prayer. But that won't be happening this year, out of concern that it violates one of the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution - the separation of church and state. Tom Porter has more.

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Originally Aired: 5/17/2013 5:30 PM
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 Duration:
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No 'Blessing of the Fleet' for Maine Student Boat Listen
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Thalia Eddyblouin, 13, works on her boat at the Maine Maritime Museum boat shed in Bath.

In the boat shed at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, five eighth graders work under supervision to complete the two 12-foot wooden skiffs they've been building since last fall.

"My name is Scott White. I'm the principal of the South Bristol Elementary School. For the past 16 to 17 years our eighth grade students have been coming here each Friday to participate in a collaborative effort between the school and the museum to create at least one, if not two, vessels to launch each spring."

Boat-building is an important and much-valued skill in mid-coast Maine. Thirteen-year-old Thalia Eddyblouin says it will be a proud moment in a few weeks time when these vessels hit the ocean.

"I can't wait," she says. "It's going to be really fun, and it's kind of cool - I mean these are going to look like every single other boat in the harbor, except that I built it."

But this year, Principal Scott White says many community members are unhappy that the ceremony will not feature the so-called "Blessing of the Fleet" - the brief prayer offered up by a pastor as the boats are launched. The decision to drop the blessing was prompted by a letter the school received from the Washington D.C.-based lobby group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

White says the letter came on the heels of a complaint from an anonymous citizen. "And so we took this letter, we had school board discussions about it, we contacted our attorneys, we checked out several different pieces of case law and determined that we should, indeed, forego the blessing portion of the launching ceremony because it by law violates the First Amendment," White says.

"I think it's unfortunate," says South Bristol resident Kate Beaudette, one of the volunteers helping in the boat shop, "because having the Blessing of the Fleet is a long maritime tradition. I personally don't feel it steps on anybody and I'm sorry that the whole question came up."

These concerns are shared by Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine. He says the school board gave in too easily when challenged by Americans United.

"You know it was a maritime curriculum that they'd been doing for years, and so the students were basically trying to re-create what happens in real life," Conley says. "It just seems to me there's a way that a community and a school can come together with diverse views and so on, and still not have to have this capitulation, knee-jerk reaction that, 'OK we're just going to stop doing it altogether.'"

"The fact that it is tradition to have a prayer doesn't really excuse the violation," says Gregory Lipper, an attorney with Americans United. "The case law is very clear from the Supreme Court decisions on down that school districts cannot sponsor prayers at school events. But the broader point is that parents have a right to control their kids' religious upbringing. It's not the job of the schools."

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South Bristol Elementary School students put the finishing touches on their boats, scheduled for launch next month.

South Bristol Elementary principal Scott White says he's comfortable with the change in policy, although he had always tended to regard the blessing as more of a platonic mingling of church and state than an excessive entanglement.

As for the children, White says he's keen to keep them away from any public debate on the issue. His biggest concern is that the debate doesn't overshadow the program and what it means for the students. But the school has also used the controversy to teach the kids how the Constitution works, and what the First Amendment means.

As for the upcoming boat launch ceremony on June 14, "We're not really sure yet who's going to be doing all of the speaking and what the program's going to look like," White says. "There's going to be a lot careful planning."

There will be a boat launch speech, but White says the words will be carefully chosen.

Photos: Tom Porter

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