5/21/2009--Tom Krattenmaker, who has been doing a lot of interesting religion work in the USA Today “On Religion” column, wrote a piece earlier this week on the religious rights of High School Valedictorian Brittany McComb. A few years ago, her microphone was turned off when she began to speak about the virtues of her Christian faith in her graduation speech. Her case is working its way to the Supreme Court.
Krattenmaker’s point is that we should all be a little more tolerant of student references like these. The secularist should understand that “for many believers, experiencing momentous events like graduation without gratitude and witness to God is as distasteful as it is for an atheist to be subjected to hard-edged proselytizing.”
I disagree with Krattenmaker about this, but in an unusual way. In American Religious Democracy, I argued that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the separation of church and state is the reason we have this problem of religious student speech. It used to be that adult educators could simply tell students that too much religious speech is inappropriate for a mixed audience and, at the same time, that the religious need that Krattenmaker notes was satisfied in a general, nonsectarian prayer before and after the graduation. These general prayers were much less offensive to anybody than the "come to Jesus” student speech we get now.
The United States Supreme Court struck down nonsectarian prayer at high school graduations in Lee v. Weisman in 1992. But the Court did not remove religion from graduations, since the religious instinct is still there. The Court only removed a more universal language along with adult supervision.
The caselaw is a mess because in general the rights of student speech are in decline. But because of a judicial intuition that religion is different, student speech here is more protected.
The proper approach is to recognize and allow a form of prayer at public occasions that is genuinely shared because it is capable of reinterpretation along secular lines. Beyond that, students could be given guidelines so that their graduation talks are appropriate for mixed secular and religious audiences. As usual, the law is the problem.