Are Americans United For Separation of Church and State Hypocrites?
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.