An Illinois school district is under fire for prohibiting an eighth grader from delivering a speech at graduation due to its religious content. Instead, Seth Clark, salutatorian at Akin Grade School in southern Illinois, made his remarks in front of several dozen classmates and supporters on a neighbor’s lawn across the street from the school.
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According to WSIL News 3, the controversy began earlier this month after Clark submitted his speech, which included Bible verses and a prayer, to administrators for review and was told he could not deliver it as written. In a prepared statement, Akin superintendent and principal Kelly Clark argued that while the religious beliefs of students are respected, they cannot be part of a public school ceremony.
“While students are welcome to pray or pursue their faith without disrupting school or infringing upon the rights of others, the United States Constitution prohibits the school district from incorporating such activities as part of school-sponsored events, and when the context causes a captive audience to listen or compels other students to participate,” the principal said.
“Because graduation is an official, school-sponsored event, the law would prohibit incorporating prayer or worship into the schedule of events,” she continued. “We respect the diverse beliefs our students and their families hold, and we strive to educate all such students in compliance with the law.”
While it is true that school districts and local governments cannot sanction religious practices at public events, experts agree that the student was well within his rights to give the speech at graduation because he was not speaking on behalf of the school.
“When you have a student initiated speech like this, there should’ve been no problem having the student have really any opinion that he wants,” said J. Tobin Grant, chairman of the political science department at Southern Illinois University, in an interview with WSIL.
“The key thing, as far as the school is concerned, is that they can’t be involved in anything that is religious. They can’t have a prayer. They can’t have students read a passage from any religious scripture or the Bible,” he continued. “But if they say, ‘Hey, you’ve got the best grades in the class… write your speech. Here’s three minutes.’ They can’t go through it. It’s a free speech issue at that point.”
Ultimately, Clark did end up giving his speech on Wednesday thanks to the kindness of family friend Rickey Karroll, who just so happens to live across the street from Akin Grade School. Still in his cap and gown, Clark delivered a prayer of thanksgiving and his remarks on Karroll’s lawn in front of about 50 people.
“Them kids, they went through this they had their plan on that, that was the right thing to do in my opinion,” said Karroll. “I think he has a right the right to give his opinion and he wanted to do a prayer, and last count I checked, we are still in the United States of America and it’s the right to freedom of speech.”
In addition to offering a prayer of thanksgiving, Clark’s speech cited scripture and included themes of forgiveness.
“I would like to apologize to all of you that I have hurt at any time in any way,” the student said. “I am not perfect, but as found in 1 Peter 1:16, ‘Be holy as I am holy.’”
While the school is not backing down from its decision and Clark’s parents, who are reportedly on the Akin school board have yet to comment publicly, it does appear as though the student’s rights were violated.
“Were his rights violated? Yeah. I think this is one of those things that happens when schools get sensitive that they are going to cross that line, so rather than do that, they try to pull back on stuff,” Grant told WSIL. “No one is going to think an eighth grader speaks for the school board. This is not a school speech. This is not government.”
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