Every coin has two sides, and so does every story. Today, from reactions to my column published a couple of weeks ago, I will present the other side.
My side was that public school officials in Brawley, California, went too far in telling a high school salutatorian, Brooks Hamby, that he could not mention God in his graduation speech. They said references to his religion were “inappropriate.”
I maintained — and still do — that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment allows a student speaker, or a student writer of an assignment, to talk about his or her religion.
Here, then, is the other side from a reader in Florahome, Florida:
“Your recent column, “Graduation speaker finally gets his say,” spoke volumes to me about how hard it is for an even mildly religious person to understand the hurt caused by being preached to or ‘witnessed’ by a person of a religious faith which is anathema to his own.
“For those in this country who happen to be religious, if you lump all Christians together, they are by far the majority. That shouldn’t mean the rest of us are forced to endure distinctly Christian prayers and testimony at government, school, or employment functions. Religion is emotional, spiritual stuff. But in a country with separation of church and state as a founding principle, there really should be a freedom from being forced to listen to other people’s versions. …
“Yes, I would agree, you are right about the freedom of speech aspects of including religious references in the graduation speech. But it seems you missed the point of the school district’s rule. They might have been ‘paranoid that the court will smite them.’ It is more likely it was the desire to not cause discomfort to anyone. …”
A reader in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, wrote this: “…What the law does mean is that teachers and principals, etc., can’t force a student into religious expression. In Mitchell County, I would say we have the opposite problem. I would be willing to bet you can find teachers leading morning prayer and students getting shamed or feeling left out if they don’t pray.”
The reader in Spruce Pine is right. The U.S. Supreme Court did outlaw state-sanctioned prayer in public schools. But there’s a big difference in a public school teacher — a state employee — voicing a prayer in class and an individual student saying in a speech how much his faith means to him.
Decades ago, we students read the Bible and said a prayer before high school classes began. Our daughters could not do that. But my wife and I did not depend on our kids’ public schools to promote faith. That job belonged to us parents and to the church.
I’d like to think, however, that if one of our daughters had wanted to talk about her faith in a speech at school, she would have been allowed to do so. And without interference from overreaching speech police with black Magic Markers.
Phil Hudgins is senior editor for Community Newspapers Inc.