Like most high schools, Medina Valley Independent School District allows the class valedictorian to deliver a graduation address. This year’s valedictorian, Angela Hildenbrand, is a Bible-believing Christian. Many knew that Angela would give thanks to God for blessing her work as a student, and that she might offer a prayer. Alleging that hearing a prayer would cause serious and irreparable harm, one of Barry Lynn’s lawyers at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) filed suit for the agnostic family. A federal judge….issued an order that no prayers could be offered, and also that Angela could not utter certain words in her speech, including the phrase “bow your heads” or the specific words “prayer” or “amen.”
In other words, suppose Angela said, “As long as students have to take final exams, there will be prayer in schools. Can I hear an ‘amen’?” She would have violated the judge’s order twice, and could be thrown in jail.
The reality is, the judge’s order, not a prayer Angela might offer in her speech, violated the First Amendment. In 1992, the Supreme Court (wrongly) held 5-4 that high school graduation prayers violated the First Amendment Establishment Clause. Even then, though, the court’s holding was merely that a school could not organize the prayer or invite a clergyman to lead the prayer. In that moment, the clergyman is speaking for the government.
In this case, a student is given the stage not specifically to pray, but to speak about her values and priorities and to thank whomever she wishes for helping her succeed in school. Because she’s a private citizen (not a government agent), her speech is protected by the First Amendment Free Speech Clause. For government (including a judge) to censor her private speech is unconstitutional.
On June 4, the Fifth Circuit federal appeals court granted an emergency motion to reverse the district judge. So Angela’s speech proceeded as planned, including the now-controversial word “amen.” But don’t get your hopes up that sanity is making a comeback. [Story from the Washington Examiner]
The article rightly points out, the public school district is not officially mandating or even arranging for prayer to take place. What AUSCS argues is that the mere public mention of God by a private citizen of faith should be forbidden, that a religious person, asked to speak to a public gathering, cannot indicate that God was part of her success, or give public thanks and acknowledgment to God. It is indeed sad that any judge would agree with this, but increasingly this is the case. This case was won on appeal, but not every similar case has won or will be won in the future.
It is essential that we remain vigilant in matters such as these. It is the wish of some to exclude Christians, indeed all believers, from the public marketplace of ideas. There are increasing numbers of strident secularists who insist that the only legal place for religious expression, be inside a church building, or on church-owned property. This is not right or Constitutional:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of a religion or the free exercise thereof: or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution).
Christians and other religious individuals have no less a right to free speech, to assemble peaceably, or petition the government than any other group, or individual. Yet it is increasingly argued by many that, simply the fact that a religious perspective is involved, should exclude religious people altogether from having a place in the public setting. And thus we have the strange reality that in public schools, our children can be exposed to almost any philosophy, some of them aberrant and little supported by the general populace. Yet, even to refer to the Bible as an historical factor in this nation’s history is considered forbidden and may trigger a lawsuit. Condoms are freely distributed in most schools but the mere presence of a Bible is often greeted with hostility from school administrators.
There are legitimate debates to be had about the limits of interaction between the religious institutions and the State, about when and how citizens acting in a state sponsored role can speak of, or reference, religious matters. But no private citizen, such as Angela Hildenbrand, reference above should have their right to speech abridged by the government in the manner attempted by the judge. Christians have every right that other citizens do to speak to their values publicly, and seek to influence the public discussion.
We need to be alert in these matters and stay thirsty for justice.