ARE SCHOOL OFFICIALS RIGHT IN FORBIDDING RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION BY STUDENTS IN GRADUATION SPEECHES?

By now you have probably heard of the latest attempt by school officials to sensor a graduating student’s religious comments in  his graduation speech (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2014/06/16/god-redacted-from-high-school-graduation-speech/?cmpid=NL_tadspth).    Brooks Hamby wanted to thank Jesus  in his salutatory address.  But, Brawley Union School District in Brawley, Calif., said the references to Jesus and prayer in Brooks’ graduation speech were “inappropriate” and violated “prevailing legal standards.”  Brooks had to go through four revisions to his comments before he was able to make his comments without being stopped by school officials.  They even threatened to turn off the lights if he made religious comments!  

The first draft included the unthinkable prayer, “Heavenly Father, in all times, let us always be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us.”  When he was forbidden to use these words, he wrote, “Certain interpretations of the law, school policies and conditions have stifled my ability to speak freely to you this evening and prohibited me from doing otherwise. However, if I could pray with you this evening, I would say something along these lines.”  That, too was censored!  A third revision was also rejected.   Shortly before the time of the graduation, he submitted a fourth draft.  By time to make his speech, he had not heard from the Superintendent.  

He decided to continue with the fourth draft.  He said to his fellow graduating students, “In simply coming before you today, I presented three drafts of my speech – all of them denied on account of my desire to share my personal thoughts and inspiration to you in my Christian faith.  In life, you will be told no. In life, you will be asked to do things that you have no desire to do. In life, you will be asked to do things that violate your conscience and your desire to do what is right.”  He concluded with the words, “May the God of the Bible bless each and every one of you every day in the rest of your lives.”

These words violated the the school administratos’ warnings.  But, were they right in censoring his religious speech?  Of course, we realize that he was well within his First Amendment rights both of freedom of religious overexercise and expression.  But, he was also acting in accordance with the U.S. Department of Education policy:

U.S. Department of Education in 2003 that directly deals with this issue is entitled “Prayer at Graduation.”

School officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation or select speakers for such events in a manner that favors religious speech such as prayer. Where students or other private graduation speakers are selected on the basis of genuinely neutral, evenhanded criteria and retain primary control over the content of their expression, however, that expression is not attributable to the school and therefore may not be restricted because of its religious (or anti-religious) content. To avoid any mistaken perception that a school endorses student or other private speech that is not in fact attributable to the school, school officials may make appropriate, neutral disclaimers to clarify that such speech (whether religious or nonreligious) is the speaker’s and not the school’s. (http://aclj.org/education/student-rights-at-graduation-school-events).

Further, he was acting within the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Though lower courts have made contradictory ruliings on the matter, the most recent recent Supreme Court ruling:  1992: USA: Supreme Court ruling: In the case of Lee v. Weisman [U.S., 112 S. Ct. 2649 (1992)], the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employees of a public school district may not induce, endorse, assist, nor promote prayer at their graduation ceremonies. This would forbid prayers presented by a school principal, a teacher, or a clergy person from the community. Judge Anthony Kennedy prepared the majority opinion. He wrote that the “Constitution forbids the State to exact religious conformity from a student as the price of attending her own high school graduation.”  (http://www.religioustolerance.org/ps_prae.htm).  So, schools officials cannot initiate prayer in a graduation ceremony.  However, the court has yet to rule on whether students may do so. 

So, Brooks Hamby neither violated the Constitution, U.S Supreme Court ruling, nor U.S. Department of Education policy.  On the other hand, his Constitutional rights were violate.

Brooks Hamby should be commended for standing up to over-reaching school officials, and doing the right thing!

L. John Bost

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