It’s graduation season again, and all across America school auditoriums and football fields are ringing out with the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
Yet for some high school seniors, their graduation ceremonies have become exercises in what to expect from a society intolerant of religion. Specifically, these Commencement ceremonies have become studies in how to censor the speeches of bright young minds.
Consider some recent incidents. In Wisconsin, for example, school officials informed high school senior Rachel Honer that she could sing a song at her graduation exercises only if she substituted “He,” “Him” or “His” the three times the word “God” was mentioned in the lyrics. Thankfully, after the Rutherford Institute filed suit, school officials opted to respect Rachel’s First Amendment right to sing an uncensored version of “He’s Always Been Faithful” at her commencement exercise on June 8.
School officials at Truman High School in Minnesota informed salutatorian Maria Woolle that she would not be permitted to quote a single verse from the Bible-Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”) in her address to her classmates. Again, after intervention by the Rutherford Institute, school officials came around to agreeing with what the U.S. Supreme Court has said on the matter. That is, “there is a ‘crucial difference’ between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect.”
Unfortunately, these incidents are nothing new. Confused over where to draw the line regarding the so-called “separation of church and state,” many school officials have chosen to err on the side of censorship rather than free speech. Often it’s the students who have earned the right to address their classmates as valedictorians and salutatorians who lose out in the end and have their speeches stripped of any mention of religion or God.
Nicholas Lassonde’s case, currently on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, is a perfect example of how our brightest young minds are being forced to deny their faith publicly. A former high school salutatorian, Lassonde was ordered by school officials to remove from his speech ten sentences they considered “proselytizing comments” from an otherwise remarkable speech on American political history. Under protest, Lassonde delivered the censored speech but also handed out copies of the full text outside the site of the graduation ceremony.
Had these students chosen to reference another religious source-or quote any secular poem or deliver a rendition of a hip hop song-they might very well have been allowed to do so. Sadly, these incidents serve as chilling but relevant lessons about what students should expect in the so-called “real world,” where cemetery honor guardsmen are fired for proclaiming “God bless the United States of America” and prison employees are terminated for talking about their faith with inmates.
Still, the blame cannot be placed completely on the ignorance of school officials who haven’t studied our U.S. Constitution. There are, unfortunately, a number of individuals and organizations out there determined to terrorize schools into noncompliance with the Constitution. Too often, they succeed.
These groups, often armed with attorneys and driven by a phobic aversion to the “G” word, are determined to strip any reference to religion from the public sphere. Some have even made it their life’s work to intimidate schools into adopting policies intolerant of religious expression in an attempt to completely eliminate any reference to religion from public life.
Thanks to efforts such as these, there remains a great deal of confusion in the schools and the courts over what role religion should play in our society. This debate has raged over school prayer, references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, on U.S. currency, and the like. The Supreme Court has ruled that when school officials lead prayer at a graduation exercise, it is unconstitutional. It remains to be seen where the justices will stand on the issue of religious references in graduation speeches where students, without direction from school officials, decide to reference God.
Even Thomas Jefferson, credited with coining the “wall of separation” between church and state term, has been largely misunderstood through the years. In the same way, people continue to misunderstand the role of religion and religious expression in our society. Our Founding Fathers never intended that government officials police the religious expression of Americans. They simply wanted to ensure that the government did not force any particular religion on the people.
Indeed, Jefferson once remarked, “We have solved, by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.”
For the sake of our young people, the graduation phobia and paranoia about any reference to God need to soon end. Then maybe we can once again enjoy the comfort and quiet of a land of liberty and justice for all.
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