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Wednesday, June 21, 2006 

Are Americans United For Separation of Church and State Hypocrites?

This week the only thing more deafening that the outcry of the nation's political Right was the silence of groups like Americans United For Separation of Church in State. What caused such an earth-shaking noise in America you might ask? It was the latest attempt by Anti-Free Exercisers to squelch free speech in the public schools by a valedictorian who, though she earned the right to speak, had it taken away from her because she said "God" too much.

Now, before I enter a discussion on the "wall of separation" between Church and State and the Free-Exercise clause of the Constitution, let me offer a disclaimer. I do not support the use of government funds for religious observation, nor do I feel that teachers, administrators, or students in the public schools should force others to exercise any religion against their will. Now, having said that, I do support the right of students, particularly those who are given a forum to speak by virtue of achievement or due process (i.e., through the result of student elections), to say what they wish provided that their comments are relevant to the event at hand and are not vulgar, profane, or spoken with the intention to provoke anger or hate toward an individual or group.

And I especially support the right of a valedictorian to say what she wishes when it most certainly falls within the parameters set by the school board in her particular school district. Such was the case of Brittany McComb, graduating senior class valedictorian of Foothill High School in Henderson, Nevada. On Thursday, June 15th, McComb's microphone was cut off part-way through her valedictorian address by administrators due to its content. This action was met with jeers by the 400+ graduates and hundreds more in attendance. School officials said the "speech amounted to proselytizing and that her commentary could have been perceived as school-sponsored."

What is interesting in this story, however, is that the Clark County School Board essentially disagreed through a 2003 amendment to its district policies. It clearly states:
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.
And then goes on to add:
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 is not school sponsored.
A simple statement of clarification was all that needed to be added in order to bring McComb's speech up to par in accordance with district policy and decisions by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that graduation speeches could not contain "sectarian, proselytizing religious speech." The most provocative portion of McComb's address still does not compare to the words the 9th Court ruled as being "proselytizing" speech. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, her speech included only one occurrence of "Christ" and "a reference to God's love being so great that he gave his only son to suffer an excruciated death in order to cover everyone's shortcomings and forge a path to heaven." Yet at no time does it seem she extended a call to her fellow students to act upon such information, which was certainly the case in Lassonde v. Pleasanton Unified School District (2003) or in Cole v. Oroville Union High School District (2000). In both of those cases, the Plaintiffs clearly stated their intention to call attendees to turn to Christ. Such does not seem to be true of McComb's speech.

So, if this clearly was not an attempt to proselytize, it wasn't a violation of the precedent set by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and it was in accordance with school district policies, why aren't groups like Americans United For Separation of Church and State up-in-arms about such a decision by the school board? After all, on the AU website, the organization clearly states that it is an advocate for free speech and free exercise. In fact, under the heading of "Free Exercise of Religion" in the Issues section of their website, there is a statement that reads, "The government should be permitted to infringe on religious liberty only in extremely rare instances where a clear and compelling government interest is demonstrated." Clearly, this is not one of those rare instances. So why the silence on this issue? Why didn't we hear anything from the Religious Left? Bruce Prescott? TalktoAction.com?

Let me offer my take on why these people don't respond to attacks on free speech and free exercise. It's simple -- they don't care. They care more about the one or two who are inconvenienced in such a speech than the countless number of people who daily are told to "Shut Up" or are shouted down when they express their views in a public forum. If free speech is truly to be "free" then those who claim to advocate for it must be unbiased and exceedingly such. For years now, leftist Baptists have claimed that conservative Baptist groups have turned away from their roots in advocating religious freedom. But when such actions by school districts go unnoticed by these same groups, one has to wonder if they are not merely hypocrites focusing not on freedom, but on political agendas.

Let me begin by saying that if an organization's mission is limited, then it shouldn't be expected to speak out on other issues. But, this might be closely related to Americans United... mission that it should have. If it was and they didn't-shame on you.

However, if you are for free speech you have to be fair. The ACLU should have been all over this. Was it? Some branches do a better job than others.

But we all know about inconsistencies. EX. SBC on alcohol and Sola Scriptura; my emphasis on free speech, but stance against flag burning.

The story you discuss does fuel the fire for those who argue that an anti-Christian bias exists in our culture. I don't think we ever had a "Christian nation" and don't want one, but I have to admit that the bias against "Christianity" is real.

How many examples of sound "Christian" folks do you see on TV and in movies? I can't really think of any. It is time for those who aren't stark-raving Fundamentalists to stand up against discrimination of all kinds.

Thanks for pointing this out DR!

Howie Luvzus

I lean towards agreeing with you. I lean pretty heavily towards free speech.

However, I also lean towards personal and corporate responsibility. If this student were delivering a fire and brimstone sermon at a graduation, as a Christian, I'd be pretty ticked off.

As a school administrator, I don't know what I'd do (I reckon I'd have my speech guidelines nailed down because this is bound to come up).

It sounds like their policy is pretty wide open and that they should have heeded their own policies. Out of good taste, I don't think I'd have that broad-open a policy. Who wants to go to a graduation and hear a kid preach - for or against - a religion or what have you?

Darn that free speech thing! It's complicated. I reckon I'd come down in favor of the kid, but maybe reluctantly.

I would like to see the full text of the speech myself, but from what the MSM is saying about it, it doesn't seem like it fits into the mold of proselytizing and thus within the Constitutional limits set by the 9th Circuit Court and certainly within the guidelines of the school district. Like the speech or not, it was wrong to censor it. I don't like hearing anti-Bush rants and stereotypes of Christians at graduation speeches either, but since we have officially declared secuarlism a religion, it seems only fair to give equal time.

If "they" recognized secularism as a religion, they'd have to censor it, too. Won't happen...double standard....

Regarding the comment from the school administrator above, there is a difference between preaching and alluding to faith as one part of what has shaped you.

Political correctness has truly turned into political intolerance in many ways.

Suzanne Eller

Ms. Eller, thank you for stopping by and I agree, there is a vast differnce between preaching and blowing the trumpet of that which has been the secret of their success. In this case, I think that what this young lady did couldn't be construed as preaching and yet she was censored anyway, which is like you said, "political intolerance."

D.R., I haven't got around to this case yet on my blog, but I will. Since you asked about it specifically, and I am taking awhile to get back to the liberty of conscience series, I will comment here briefly. This is a hard case in my view. Cutting off the young woman's microphone seems to curtail her free speech rights and her free exercise of religion rights. However, evangelism at a commencement of a public school seems to lend official school endorsement (and, therefore, government endorsement) of her evangelistic speech. That endorsement would be a violation of "no establishment."

I'm not sure how to call it. I'm a Christian, but if I were a student or parent at that school, I would have been ticked off that the purpose of the event (celebrating graduation) would have been hijacked for a different purpose. If the young woman just thanked God for giving her strength to do well and then moved on, that would be different.

AU is not a perfect organization--none are. Listing them on my blog is an endorsement of their overall mission, not necessarily agreement with each case. I'd have to see the whole speech to see what my whole view is, but cutting off her microphone is clearly wrong.


Thanks for joining the conversation over here and offering your thoughts. I was with you initially, but you jumped from, "Cutting off the young woman's microphone seems to curtail her free speech rights and her free exercise of religion rights" to "evangelism at a commencement of a public school seems to lend official school endorsement (and, therefore, government endorsement) of her evangelistic speech" and I am not sure how you got there.

Even the school officials presented no evidence that this was an attempt at evangelism. Evangelism is and of itself is amounts to an attempt to persuade others to adopt the position being addressed. This just simply doesn't seem to be the case here and as such is a red herring to the real issue. At no point does her speech ever raise the question of "Is she attempting to call others to her view?" For someone to stand up and say, "This is what I think and what has helped me to accomplish my goals and this is the motivation behind my success" is completely appropriate given the context (a speech made possible by her accomplishments). Additionally, the school board already had in place legally sound buffers to dispel any hint of endorsement. The official policy was to err on the side of free speech, but do so by offering a clear disclaimer. The school officials attempted to do no such thing and refused to legitimately work with her.

You said,
I'm a Christian, but if I were a student or parent at that school, I would have been ticked off that the purpose of the event (celebrating graduation) would have been hijacked for a different purpose. If the young woman just thanked God for giving her strength to do well and then moved on, that would be different.

Let's remember that her speech was but one amongst four that were given by students that night and likely was very brief (I am guessing no more than 5-10 minutes, if that). So to say this was a hijacking is to dramatize the actual event. Even so I am often uncomfortable when I go to such events and hear speeches that are pro-abortion, anti-Republican, or anti-Christian, yet that is part of the speaker's right that they have been given by their acheivement. And were I a school official, I would not try to prevent this from happening (and if such a think happened, don't you think the ACLU would be all over it). So to segregate this case simply because the viewpoint presented is a religious one is completely misconstrue the First Amendment, which reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." What part of this story seems to violate the First Amendment here? Her telling that Jesus was her chief motivator for accomplishing her goal or her being told that she couldn't tell other people that?

I am glad to see that you think that in this case, cutting off her mic was wrong. The point of this post is to say that groups like AU and the ACLU, in an effort to uphold the Constitution, actually seem to take a blind eye to cases like this that they should be making a stand on. They push so hard one way that they are unable to maintain balance and sanity. Thus, when right-leaning groups take on a case like this, they are seen as theocrats and Dominionists, rather than the upholders of the Constitution, as they should be. That is just a clear double standard that I am tired of seeing and I think should be noted. The same thing applies wiht the most recent case that I commented on: Pastor Faced Charges for Evangelism at Mall, as well as this case, noted on Tim Ellsworth's blog: Skating rink in trouble for ‘Christian skate’. If AU is unwilling to address an issue like these, then it seems to me that it shows itself to be unbalanced and thus just as dangerous to the First Amendment as are Theocrats. And that is why I can never support such an organization, even as I cannot support someone like Pat Robertson and D. James Kennedy.

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About me

Paul was not interested merely in the ethical principles of religion or of ethics. On the contrary, he was interested in the redeeming work of Christ and its effect upon us. His primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions but at its centre. -- J. Greshem Machen.

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