Some people know what America is all about and some do not. In one sense it should not be surprising. On the other hand, I am truly amazed at those who do not, especially since certain principles were drilled into us as we learned American history in school. We learned that America was the land of the free and that people had a right to believe and say what they wanted. Now there is only confusion.
While a government official cannot say something that would establish religion, neither can that official or any part of the government itself forbid the free exercise of religion or curtail free speech. For example, students in the government school system are still guaranteed freedom of speech even if the teachers who are employed by that school system are not. And yet, students are routinely denied their rights as Americans, even certain rights granted to us by God Himself.
Consider Brittany McComb. Review-Journal reports, "She knew her speech as valedictorian of Foothill High School would be cut short, but [she] was determined to tell her fellow graduates what was on her mind and in her heart. But before she could get to the word in her speech that meant the most to her -- Christ -- her microphone went dead."
How could school officials be so confused? At least the people in attendance were not as "the decision to cut short McComb's commencement speech...drew jeers from the nearly 400 graduates and their families that went on for several minutes."
For the record, "in the 750-word unedited version of McComb's speech, she made two references to the lord, nine mentions of God and one mention of Christ. In the version approved by school officials, six of those words were omitted along with two biblical references. Also deleted from her speech was a reference to God's love being so great that he gave his only son to suffer an excruciating death in order to cover everyone's shortcomings and forge a path to heaven."
Of course, Clark County School District moved quickly to defend their actions with impressive judicial gymnastics. In their words, "graduation ceremonies are school-sponsored events, a stance supported by federal court rulings, and as such may include religious references but not proselytizing...Before she delivered her commencement speech, McComb met with Foothill administrators, who edited her remarks. It's standard district practice to have graduation speeches vetted before they are read publicly. School officials removed from McComb's speech some biblical references and the only reference to Christ."
When did it become standard practice to squelch free speech in this country? Interpretation is always the key in these situations and the obvious problem is that anyone can interpret any religious reference as proselytizing making such court language not only unhelpful but destructive of the liberty upon which the nation was founded and in direct violation of the letter and intent of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Even McComb herself understands this basic, American tenet. "Even though administrators warned [her] that her speech would get cut short if she deviated from the language approved by the school, she said it all boiled down to her fundamental right to free speech." How is it that she understands what is at stake here and her supposed teachers and government leaders do not?
Now, consider her action in light of that right to free speech. "That's why, for what she said was the first time in her life, the valedictorian who graduated with a 4.7 GPA rebelled against authority. 'I went through four years of school at Foothill and they taught me logic and they taught me freedom of speech,' McComb said. 'God's the biggest part of my life. Just like other valedictorians thank their parents, I wanted to thank my lord and savior.'"
Well, I can't help but applaud Miss McComb for her courage and for her commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. No doubt, issues of authority and submission have been raised and are raised for the Christian in light of Romans 13 and related texts. The reality is that we are to submit to authority for the sake of Christ's glory and gospel witness among other things. And, if all we were talking about here was a government decision based upon rights granted to us by government, then submission would be the proper course.
However, we are talking about something bigger. It is important to understand that God-given rights fall into a different category as testified to by the witness of Scripture. When Christians are asked to violate Scripture or dishonor the Lord, they must not submit. The Hebrew Midwives who were ordered to kill the babies but saved them alive (Ex. 1:15f), Rahab the harlot who protected the men of God with a lie (Josh. 2:1f), and the apostles who were commanded to but refused to cease from preaching the gospel come immediately to mind (Acts 4:1f). McComb was told not to speak of Christ, but, she could not help but proclaim that which she had seen and heard (Acts 4:20).
What about the aforementioned court rulings? The ACLU, supporting the School District, cited two decisions by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, (the most overturned court in the country), in 2000 and 2003. Not only is the Court's credibility on these issues non-existent, the Court has clearly ruled against the First Amendment.
Further, "in 2003, the Clark County School Board amended district regulations on religious free speech, prohibiting district officials from organizing a prayer at graduation or selecting speakers for such events in a manner that favors religious speech or a prayer." A class valedictorian does not fall into that category as he or she earns the right to speak at graduation.
Moreover, "'the remainder of the amendment allows for religious expression during school ceremonies. 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,' it states." Such is the case here, and thus, not only is the school in violation of the Constitution, but, it is in violation of its own policy.
In addition, "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." And of course, that is what should have happened here but did not.
Sadly, in the end, suppression of religion and speech will rule the day as fear of government and confusion over long forgotten basics will only increase. The good news is that God is in control and we can trust Him to build His church. We must simply do what He has commanded us.
But, let me offer something to think about. Our Lord told us that we are sheep among wolves and that we would be delivered up to authorities for persecution. Thus, we should be wise as serpents and gentle as doves (Matt. 10:16f). Perhaps we can take a lesson on that from Brittany McComb. While it cost her a great deal to take the stand she did, as it turns out, her message has reached far more people than she ever imagined. I wonder if she was hoping they would turn her microphone off for that very possibility. As I look at the big picture and all the media attention and resultant discussion concerning the event, I’m glad they did.
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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