Graduation, religion and free speech combined for the perfect storm at the conclusion of the 2013 high school year.
The most recent flap came out of Texas, where school district officials cut the mic after Joshua High School senior Remington Reimer strayed from his pre-approved text and started talking about his faith and constitutional rights.
A Huffington Post account of the incident noted the ceremony ended in prayer and turning off the microphone was pursuant to district policy that warns if students deviate from their approved speech the sound will be shut off.
"Although the speech was peppered with references to God, district Superintendent Fran Marek told the Cleburne Times-Review that the decision to cut off Reimer had nothing to do with religion,” the Post reported.
That's an important distinction, according to Ed Morrissey, writing for Hot Air:
"If the action took place because of the specificity of Reimer’s speech in regard to his faith — the ‘excruciating death on a cross’ passage — then I’d argue that the school interfered with his First Amendment right to free speech. Either way, Reimer wasn’t inciting the crowd to riot or lawlessness by explaining his reliance on Christianity, and the school district exposed itself as petty and autocratic in the extreme by attempting to silence him."
Before Reimer, another valedictorian, Robert B. Costner IV, ripped up his speech before the audience at Liberty High School in South Carolina before expressing gratitude for his faith and reciting the Lord's Prayer.
And in Kentucky, an atheist graduate alerted the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation after his senior class president subjected him to "religious bullying by leading the graduating class in a prayer,” over the objections of a half dozen students.
Don Byrd, writing on the Baptist Committee on Religious Freedom website, says students who break the rules to pray at graduation are being more selfish than courageous.
"That is not to say we de-value prayer and religion in public school. Just the opposite. We honor the prayerful journey of each student and family when we refrain from grafting the religious view of one on to the celebration of all, even when it is the majority view," he wrote. "In so doing, we respect the role prayer and faith plays for all in attendance, and acknowledge its capacity to define a moment."
Dominic Verner, writing for First Things, contends the feelings of nonbelievers don't overrule the right of free expression.
"Will such communal acts of prayer alienate some people? No. But, they will reveal the alienation that already exists. Let’s face it. If you don’t believe in God, your bonds of solidarity with those who do will be rather thin. The solution is not to dilute all such bonds to the weakness of your own."
Then Mary Elizabeth Williams, who writes for Salon, says both sides of the culture wars need to give the other some space and stop forcing their opponents to comply.
"We need to be welcoming of different ideals. But we also need to express our own views in ways that live and let live. Boycott a business. Write a scathing Yelp review. Remind people that not everybody thanks the Lord. And then move on. Be the tolerance we want extended towards ourselves. And recognize the difference between practicing a belief and forcing it on others."
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