Last May, conservative Christians were raising a fuss over Sam Blackledge, a student at West Prairie High School in Illinois, because administrators at his school said his valedictorian speech for graduation was unacceptable since it included explicitly religious messages.
Once version of the draft speech posted online ended with him encouraging the crowd to accept Christ:
Where did Evil, Justice, Love and Forgiveness converge at a moment in history? Can I take you to a hill called Calvary and show you the person of Jesus Christ?
The Cross of Christ shows us our own evil hearts, that we would put an innocent man up to die. Christ came to show us God’s justice in dealing with the unfairness of the world. The Cross demonstrates to us the very love of God who died in our place and how we find at the end of the day that without his forgiveness we would never make it.
… The most important thing in your life is to find that intimacy with God. He will guide you, he will hold you, and he will take you through safely in your journey. As you search for goodness, justice, love, and forgiveness, know that only God is big enough to provide that for you.
The school was right to ask him to change the speech to remove those references — and, to his credit, he did — because they had a policy of approving speeches ahead of time. Had Blackledge delivered his sermon after administrators read his speech, critics could have rightfully accused the district of promoting religion at a school event.
But because they did the right thing, they didn’t hear from church/state separation groups (who had no need to get involved). Instead, they heard from the conservative legal group First Liberty Institute, which said the school went too far in “censoring” this speech.
They’re wrong. They’re frequently wrong. But when a conservative group (with support from the FOX News crowd) comes after you, it can be scary.
That’s why a recent update on this story is fairly unnerving.
For the past few months, the district has been working in conjunction with First Liberty to create a new policy that would allow students like Blackledge to get away with preaching in front of a captive audience. The new rules look something like this:
The policy states students who speak at school assemblies or ceremonies are responsible for the content and delivery of their speeches.
It also states building principals can’t prohibit or delete portions of a student speech unless it affects school operations or the rights of other students, is obscene, infringes on copyrights or promotes drug use or other illegal activity.
Student speakers must submit a draft at least two school days before the speech is delivered. The principal can make editorial suggestions.
“West Prairie’s new policies ensure that students are free to express their faith at school as long as it’s not disruptive,” First Liberty senior counsel Roger Byron stated in a news release. “We, along with our client, are very pleased that West Prairie school officials clarified this important policy that will permit future students to share their faith in a graduation ceremony.
I’m not a lawyer, but I play one on the internet, and this seems like a huge mistake.
Simply put, if the administrators have a draft of all speeches in their hands 48 hours before the event, and they allow a student to preach anyway, critics could still argue the district (and not just the student) is promoting a particular religious belief. The First Amendment conflict hasn’t gone away. They knew there would be a call to Christ, for example, and they still gave it a green light.
Also, what’s stopping a principal from telling a young Satanist that a speech praising Lucifer would be “disruptive” or “obscene” or “affect school operations” while giving a pass to a sermon celebrating Jesus?
Notice what First Liberty attorney Jeremy Dys even says in the article: “When students are given control over their remarks, it’s unlawful for a school district to say ‘You can have this viewpoint but not that viewpoint.’”
He’s right about that… and yet the revised policy doesn’t give students control over their remarks. Administrators get a say in it. Which means whatever the students say can also be attributed to the school.
I asked Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Andrew Seidel about this issue, and if my assessment made sense. He agreed the problems weren’t resolved, and suggested opening this door would lead the district down a path it’s not anticipating. After all, what happens when the next valedictorian uses the longer leash to criticize religion, promote a non-Christian religion, urge everyone to vote for a particular candidate, or say something wildly unpopular?
First Liberty’s strategy, he argued, was “remarkably shortsighted.” (He’s written more about the issue here.)
The district may think it solved its problem. Instead, administrators just created new ones to appease a legal group that loses on these issues all the time.
(Screenshot via YouTube. Thanks to Brian for the link)