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> Columns > Boston Globe > Student "preaching"

Student "preaching"

By Cathy Young | June 24, 2002

THE DEBATE over the place of religion in public life, which has garnered a great deal of attention since the Sept. 11 attack on America, has recently spilled over, yet again, into a controversy over a high school graduation address. Shannon Wray, the salutatorian in her class at the Hollidaysburg Area High School in Pennsylvania and the new heroine on the conservative talk show circuit, wanted to give a speech talking, in part, about her faith in Jesus Christ and the role of that faith in her life and her success.

The school authorities told her that this passage was, in her words, ''too religious and not diverse enough'' and that she had to take it out. It was only when Wray and her attorney threatened to file a lawsuit claiming a violation of her constitutionally protected right to free speech that the authorities relented and allowed her to go ahead with her speech.

The school has publicly denied any attempt at censorship, though conceding that Wray was asked to give a ''nonsectarian, non-proselytizing'' speech. Perhaps the authorities were impressed by the fact that in May, officials at the Oroville High School in California settled for $59,000 a lawsuit by Jason Niemeyer, a high school valedictorian who was barred from speaking at graduation under very similar circumstances in 1999.

The valedictory address Niemeyer initially submitted for the school's approval concluded by urging all those present ''to take advantage of the friendship that is offered us in Christ.'' After consulting with attorneys, the school officials forbade him to give the speech. He rewrote it so that it contained references to God but not to Jesus; the revised version was rejected as well. The previous year, Jason Niemeyer's older brother Chris, also a valedictorian in his class, had also been denied the right to speak at the commencement because he wanted to deliver a religiously themed address.

In settling the lawsuit, Oroville High School did not admit any wrongdoing. The law, so far, remains murky on the subject of student-initiated religious speech at public events in schools. It is a conflict in which two key First Amendment protections - freedom of speech and the prohibition against state establishment of religion - seem to collide.

Two years ago, the US Supreme Court struck down a Texas school district's policy permitting voluntary, student-led public prayers before high school football games. But that case was very different. Several Catholic and Mormon families challenged the practice of having a prayer delivered over the school's public address system before the start of home varsity football games. The plaintiffs saw this as part of a general pattern of promotion of a specific brand of Christianity by the schools of the mostly Baptist town. Teachers led prayers before lunch, handed out flyers for revival meetings, and sometimes openly disparaged other faiths.

After the lawsuit was filed, the district devised an ostensibly neutral solution to the problem of public prayer at football games: a student-elected speaker would deliver pre-game remarks, religious or secular, to ''solemnize the event.'' The Supreme Court rejected this as thinly disguised public sponsorship of prayer.

But what of religious speech that is truly initiated by students? Some courts have held that graduation is an extension of the school curriculum and that, therefore, sectarian commencement messages should not be permitted. But interpreting such remarks as ''establishment of religion'' by the state is far more of a stretch than in the Texas case. A valedictorian's address has a clear secular purpose and is not the only speech delivered at graduation.

To remove any shade of suspicion, an administrator could make a statement that any expressions of religious faith reflect the speakers' individual beliefs.

Conservatives may be right to complain about an antireligion double standard. If a public school had silenced a valedictorian who wanted to speak about women's rights or assail racism, surely most liberals would have blasted this as censorship. While the American Civil Liberties Union frowns on religiously themed student speech at graduations, it has championed the right of black students to wear a ceremonial African cloth over their graduation gowns as a protected form of statement.

The concern over student-initiated religious speech seems to be less that some people will feel coerced or discriminated against than that they will feel uncomfortable. Yet it is part of the American way that we are sometimes forced to listen to speech we don't like, as long as we're free to counter it with more speech. The First Amendment guarantees religious freedom, not freedom from being annoyed.

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