Since the Supreme Court of the United States decision in Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), confusion over the ruling is still with us more than fifty years later. Tension exists within the minds of administrators in the public school systems of our nation between the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This tension surfaces during this time of year when school districts are the venue for graduation exercises.
The pertinent language in the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof.” The Supreme Court in Abington interpreted “Congress” as any government entity, such as a public school, represented by a government employee, such as a classroom teacher, is creating an unconstitutional establishment of religion by leading a class of children in Bible reading or prayer. Nothing in this decision prohibits the free exercise of religion by an individual, such as school staff or students during appropriate times.
This past June 12th Brooks Hamby addressed the graduation class of Brawley Union High School in Brawley, California as their salutatorian. Brooks is a Christian and wanted to mention the influence his faith had on his educational experience. He had to submit his remarks in advance to the Brawley Union School District to be approved. The district turned down three of his speeches because of religious language it considered unacceptable.
Brooks later said he was at a “crossroads” when the school district failed to approve his fourth draft. He did not want to be thought of as a rabble-rouser, but neither did he want to compromise his convictions. He went with his convictions.
As you can imagine there has been some fuss over the matter. Thanks to the district’s futile attempts to stifle Brooks, the controversy has brought quite a bit of attention. His speech went viral and Brooks is being heard by many more now than the school district intended.
I’m glad Brooks went with his convictions. I have said more freedoms are lost from failure to exercise them than from being taken outright. What can they do to a student who simply ignored their instructions and exercised his constitutional right to freely exercise his faith?
Solomon writes, “Like a trampled spring and a polluted well is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked,” Proverbs 25:26. When we give in to ungodly people and principles, we defile ourselves, and our culture in the process. The Irish statesman Edmond Burke echoed Solomon when he said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” There are times we will have to take a stand for what we know is right; Brooks did.
Brooks does not strike me as an arrogant young man; I imagine it took quite a bit of courage to do what he thought was right. I think he is a salutatorian worth saluting.