Valedictorian address ignites free speech debate |

Valedictorian address ignites free speech debate

LAS VEGAS (AP) – When Brittany McComb’s valedictorian address veered too far into religious territory, school officials pulled the microphone plug out on her.

The 18-year-old was mid-sentence, saying, “God’s love is so great that he gave His only son up …” when the microphone went dead.

She finished the sentence without amplification: “… to an excruciating death on a cross so his blood would cover all our shortcomings and provide for us a way to heaven in accepting this grace.”

The decision by Clark County School District officials to cap a detour into religious proselytizing June 15 has renewed a debate about the proper place of religion in schools and the rights of students to free speech.

Officials say they were following the rulings of the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court when they first edited McComb’s speech two weeks before graduation and then turned off her microphone mid-sentence as she approached the off-limits language.

The court ruled in 2000 and 2003 that school districts have the obligation to censor student speeches for proselytizing, because the First Amendment clause forbids the government from establishing a national church, endorsing or showing favor to any one faith, or coercing citizens into participating in a religious practice.

At the same time, the clause requires government to protect the rights of citizens to freely practice their religious beliefs.

There is no clear definition from the 9th Circuit of the line between proselytizing and free speech, said School District lawyer Bill Hoffman. He said he relied on examples cited in court cases when evaluating McComb’s speech.

“There’s no question that sometimes it is a difficult call to figure out when comments become proselytizing,” Hoffman said.

“Sometimes it is obvious and sometimes it is not obvious.”

McComb, valedictorian at Foothill High School, said she was prepared to tell classmates the source of her success – her relationship with Jesus Christ – when she butted heads with school officials.

“If you have a chance to speak to all these people are you going to speak about ‘Hey we’re finally here, I can’t believe we made it,’ or are you going to speak about something that has radically changed your life?” McComb said.

“I was just being true to who I am and true to who I have become, who God has made me to be,” said McComb, who was raised in a Christian family and personally decided to follow the faith at age 7.

In her approved speech, McComb talked about how God filled a hole in her heart that her accomplishments couldn’t. Hoffman axed out of her text specific references to Jesus and his death on the cross, which McComb said showed God’s love for her and all of mankind.

A lawyer for McComb’s father questioned the school district, which answered with a fax referencing the 9th Circuit Court. Under pressure to turn in the final version of her speech, McComb said she agreed to the deletions.

But as graduation drew near, McComb said couldn’t bring herself to give the chopped version of the speech that reflected only a half-truth of who she is. She wrestled with the decision for weeks, seeking input from her family and friends. After prayer, she decided to present her full speech.

Now, the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal aid and education organization based in Virginia, is drafting a complaint against the school district in hopes of getting the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.

The Rutherford Institute hopes taking McComb’s case to court will help clarify the law and overturn the 9th Circuit rulings.

John Whitehead, Rutherford’s president and founder, said he believes the school district has violated McComb’s rights, and that the 9th Circuit rulings have lost sight of the responsibility of schools to protect students’ rights to free expression.

Supreme Court justices have declined to review other lower court cases, but with multiple cases seeking review, justices could decide to weigh in. McComb’s case could be the one they choose.

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