Not the Place for a Sermon

On June 4th, Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart gave an interesting sermon…:

With the help of a volunteer from the audience, Stewart, pastor of Cedar Cliff Baptist Church in Robbinsville, illustrated the pull of the devil, who prowls like a “roaring lion,” as described in the biblical Book of Peter.

Stewart wrapped ropes of different colors and sizes around the volunteer until it was exceedingly difficult for him to move or walk. The sermon ended with Stewart placing a sack over the volunteer’s head.

“The devil is out to destroy you, to tie you up. These people who took drugs, overdosed and died didn’t mean to. They got tied up,” Stewart said.

The problem with that (besides the whole “It’s untrue” thing) is that it didn’t take place in a church.

It happened at the graduation ceremony for Nantahala High School, a public school in Topton, North Carolina. There was a “silent prayer” in addition to that sermon, too.

The caption for the picture reads:

[Two students] clasp hands and bow their heads in silent prayer during the benediction of the Nantahala High School Class of 2011 graduation Saturday in the school gym.

Back to Rev. Stewart.

He was chosen to be the speaker by the 9-member (not a typo) graduating class and, for some crazy reason, the school agreed.

Dan Brigman is the superintendent for the Macon County School District, and as part of his job, goes to all the graduations in the district. He gave out diplomas at Nantahala.

“It wasn’t a revival, but he had some strong encouraging words for the kids to make good decisions,” said Brigman. He conceded that describing the scene might sound strange, but being there, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

As for the First Amendment issue? Brigman doesn’t see one.

“The kids get to choose who the speakers are year by year,” said Brigman, and because Stewart was chosen by the students, he didn’t see a constitutional conflict inherent in the sermon.

There is a conflict, of course. It doesn’t matter what the students believe; a public school cannot endorse one faith over another or faith over no faith. It’s not like Stewart’s sermon should’ve been a surprise, either — he’s a pastor — and the district should’ve known better.

Freedom From Religion Foundation sent Brigman a letter (PDF) telling him to put a stop to this in the future:

On behalf of our complainant, I respectfully request that you take immediate steps to ensure that religious ritual and proselytizing are not scheduled at future commencement ceremonies. The school district cannot schedule prayer as part of its graduation ceremonies, and it may not invite Reverend Stewart, — who obviously abused his speaking opportunity to proselytize a captive audience — or any other minister, to deliver a sermon in an address to the graduates.

Not only should the District have realized Stewart was apt to view the speaking engagement as a carte blanche invitation to abuse the situation to proselytize a captive audience, but the District is on record endorsing his sermon: your very own public statements about the sermon expressed no disapproval.

Despite the fact that this is clearly an endorsement of Christianity by the schools, it doesn’t look like they plan to sue over what happened. That may be because the “complainant” doesn’t want to press charges or because this was an honest mistake and not part of a longer pattern.

In any case, FFRF isn’t the only group angered by this. A local newspaper, The Andrews Journal, agrees as well. They put out an editorial denouncing what the district did:

Unfortunately, the ceremony, which should be about the graduates, crossed some strict legal guidelines. In fact, it likely violated numerous Supreme Court rulings.

Brigman, like many other well-meaning school administrators across the country, just doesn’t quite get it on religion in public schools.

We doubt Nantahala will be challenged for this violation of the Constitution. However, public schools and religious leaders cannot continue to flaunt the rule of law — even if they believe it is unjust.

Imagine the outrage that would have followed had the students invited a Muslim imam or a speaker from some other religion. While our region is majority Christian according to surveys, we still must respect all faiths, including people who have none.

I don’t understand why this concept is so hard for people to grasp, but if school officials can’t be trusted to offer a secular ceremony on their own, then they’ll have to deal with the threat of a lawsuit. As long as someone is brave enough to alert the media about these types of ceremonies, they won’t go ignored and change will happen.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • allison

    WHAT?!? headdesk

    That the administrator “doesn’t quite get it” seems to be an understatement here.

  • Larry Meredith

    public schools and religious leaders cannot continue to flaunt the rule of law — even if they believe it is unjust.

    not sure I agree with that. If you find a law to be unjust, I think you should stand up against it. But if you do, you need to be willing to face the consequences.

  • Servaas (South Africa)

    Should atheists be allowed to talk at these type of events? I mean sharing their beliefs etc?

  • jedipunk

    The school district cannot schedule prayer as part of its graduation ceremonies, and it may not invite Reverend Stewart, — who obviously abused his speaking opportunity to proselytize a captive audience — or any other minister, to deliver a sermon in an address to the graduates.

    While I agree the Rev Stewart should be barred from such events in the future (at least not without review), I don’t really agree with the rest of the sentence.

    I don’t have a problem with a minister/priest/rabbi/imam giving a speech, or any other christian/jew/muslim for that matter, as long as it is a speech and not a sermon.

    I understand that some feel that the fact these are religious leaders brings with it official endorsement from the school but I do not wholly agree. Obviously, the person chosen should not be hate monger. For example: WBC pastor I have a problem with, Former gangbanger who found jesus and now preaches and works with youths at the local YMCA, I may not.

    Basically, I don’t have a problem if the speaker chosen happens to be a religious leader as long as that is not why the speaker was chosen.

  • Tony

    NY street sign, clear endorsement of religion, no idea how many people offended: Pick your battles.

    Preacher for graduating class of 9 that they (apparently) voted on, clear endorsement of religion, at most 4 relevant people offended: Lawsuit totally justified

    Huh?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mujica.alex Alejandro Mujica

    I don’t think it’s that they don’t get it; I feel like they don’t care. If they believe there’s no higher order than Christian doctrine, they’ll support church over state, even if they cause overlap and trample the 1st Amendment.

  • AteoAbsurdo

    Personally, I don’t think this would be a violation if all the students agreed to it–it is their ceremony, and since they already all believe it, the pastor’s really not violating anyone’s rights.

    Sure, you can argue that *strictly* speaking the government is endorsing religion, but in such a case as this it does no harm. Government endorsing religion is not automatically bad–and I think we sometimes forget that. For instance, no harm is done if a street sign has religious diction.

  • http://atheistreadsbible.blogspot.com/ Jude

    When I complained about graduation prayer at the school where I used to work, I was told the same thing–the students are the ones who decided to have the prayer because they totally planned the graduation, so there was nothing the school district could do. Baloney. The school controls the order of events. The school required me to be there, sitting in the audience. It was too painful for me to work there any more. So, in the middle of the great recession, I quit and I’ve been underemployed ever since.

  • Rich Wilson

    @jedipunk

    Yes. A retired pastor gave the speech at my graduation (class of 12) and there was no mention of God.

    He wasn’t our first choice- that was Terry David Mulligan. But he was pretty good anyway.

  • Cswella

    Should atheists be allowed to talk at these type of events? I mean sharing their beliefs etc?

    Well, considering the average Atheist is a humanist, anything they talk about in a positive light will be standard humanist fare. Who would be discriminated against if someone talks about the value of humanity?

    NY street sign, clear endorsement of religion, no idea how many people offended: Pick your battles.

    Preacher for graduating class of 9 that they (apparently) voted on, clear endorsement of religion, at most 4 relevant people offended: Lawsuit totally justified

    Huh?

    The difference is that there is precedence for the school violation. Plus a monument honoring fallen heroes is a touchier subject.

    Ateoabsurdo:

    It doesn’t really matter if the students want to have a get together at the church for an unofficial ceremony. But on school grounds during a school sponsored event, this is clearly wrong.

    Government endorsing religion is a violation of the Constitution. We have to draw the line somewhere, otherwise they will draw the lines where they want it.

  • Steve

    “The students decided” is pretty weak too. It means that they other had a vote or more like some planning committee made the decision. In either case they can simply overrule a minority who doesn’t want a prayer or religious content.

  • Larry Meredith

    +1 to Tony’s comment. While Hemant didn’t specifically express hope of a lawsuit, the “they’ll have to deal with the threat of a lawsuit.” comment sounds at least accepting of a lawsuit. Why is it that this possible lawsuit is acceptable but a possible lawsuit for the 7 in Heaven street sign wasn’t acceptable?

  • Johann

    Should atheists be allowed to talk at these type of events? I mean sharing their beliefs etc?

    Be allowed to talk? Certainly. If by “sharing their beliefs” you mean talking to the students about how and why they think there are no gods, no, that’s not kosher either.

    Why is it that this possible lawsuit is acceptable but a possible lawsuit for the 7 in Heaven street sign wasn’t acceptable?

    I’m guessing it’s the clear precedent and a well-trod issue on one side, one that needs policing to prevent reversals vs. completely (AFAIK) new legal and social territory on the other.

  • Vanessa

    Why is it that this possible lawsuit is acceptable but a possible lawsuit for the 7 in Heaven street sign wasn’t acceptable?

    Because this is about prayer at a public school graduation, which happens all over the country, and the other was about a stupid street sign.

  • Annie

    I’m with Vanessa.

    This was not a simple, “Thank god for all you’ve been given…” or some such nonsense, but was using scare tactics to keep the graduates on the “right” path. The poor person who was tied up and had a bag put over their head… I really wouldn’t want to see that, and I certainly don’t think it is an appropriate visual aid at any school function.

  • Richard Wade

    Personally, I don’t think this would be a violation if all the students agreed to it–it is their ceremony, and since they already all believe it, the pastor’s really not violating anyone’s rights.

    Even if it was a unanimous decision by every student, (which is not specified) and even if it was free of any form of coercion or social pressure, (which is not likely) this is a violation of church-state separation. These and so many other small town bumpkins think “the majority rules.” No, the Constitution rules, and it has checks to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. If the majority ruled, then the students could, and in many places would vote every Jew and African American student out of their public school.

    The “no harm done” defense is weak because there certainly is harm done. Every student learned that day that spurning the Constitution is acceptable, and that if there are any dissenters in their ranks cowed into silence, that’s too bad for them. That graduating class is now more likely to grow up to be adults who naively take their religious freedom for granted, and they may eventually lose it because they’re not willing to defend the principle of freedom for everyone.

  • vexorian

    More than a sign in NY, and more than a sermon, this sounds like a crazy ritual of non-sense. They may have as well give the communion to the kids or something like that.

  • Heidi

    +1 to what Richard said.

    All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.
    Thomas Jefferson

    I don’t see where the problem would lie in having a separate, church-sponsored ceremony for those who want one. But the entitled Christians never seem to think that’s good enough.

  • Hypatia

    I don’t see the problem here at all. The students chose their speaker and that was that. I suppose if they had only had the choice of religious leaders and nothing more, I would have seen the problem. But, with the information provided, it seems like we’re getting our undies bunched up here for nothing.

  • http://www.facebook.com Aaron

    Well, it’s ok, as long as the school wasn’t receiving any taxpayer money.

    Oh wait, you say they were, and some of those taxpayers probably weren’t Christians? And this situation involves more than just 9 students, but the entire area from which the school receives funding?

    Imagine that.

  • Kimpatsu

    …public schools and religious leaders cannot continue to flaunt the rule of law…
    You know what else is terrible? A newspaper confusing “flaunt” and “flout”…

  • Meyekael

    Majority rule doesn’t supersede the Constitution.

  • Fiona Mackenzie

    The appropriate consequence, Larry, is for the churches to lose permanently their tax-exempt status. They never should have had it, they abuse it, and they need to lose it.

  • Fiona Mackenzie

    For quite a few years now, evangelicals have been nudged constantly to push their religion into every possible nook and cranny, between every loose brick into the schools where MY children go. This shows the greatest selfishness and, more, a persistent and organized assault on MY FREEDOM OF RELIGION.

    The argument that “right” supersedes law has two false assumptions: that it IS right to shove one’s religion down the throats of other people’s children; and that this is a theocracy and not a free and democratic country.

  • Fiona Mackenzie

    Heidi says, that never seems good enough. Right, because the purpose is not to indoctrinate and terrify their own children, who suffer that constantly, but to get their hands on other people’s children and turn them from their parents’ teaching

    How would they take it if we got our hands on their kids and did the same thing?

  • Fiona Mackenzie

    I hope the ACLU and AU have been notified of this.

  • Tony

    For the ACLU to get involved someone with standing has to request their help. They can’t just go around looking for violations and suing on their own behalf.

  • CatBallou

    Thanks, Kimpatsu—that bothered me too!

    And no, it’s NEVER OK for the government to endorse religion. We can’t fight every battle (street signs), but if we don’t fight the clear-cut ones, we allow a precedent to be set (“Nobody objects to some harmless prayers in school”) that makes it harder to win the next time.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    I definitely think that the best response is to ask people to put themselves in the other person’s place and imagine how they would feel if the prayer was based on another religion, and if that religion was the majority in their country and state, so that they could expect that the students’ choice would likely always be a speaker from that other religion.

    By the way, all the best with your migration over to Patheos!

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    I definitely think that the best response is to ask people to put themselves in the other person’s place and imagine how they would feel if the prayer was based on another religion, and if that religion was the majority in their country and state, so that they could expect that the students’ choice would likely always be a speaker from that other religion.

    By the way, all the best with your migration over to Patheos!

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    I definitely think that the best response is to ask people to put themselves in the other person’s place and imagine how they would feel if the prayer was based on another religion, and if that religion was the majority in their country and state, so that they could expect that the students’ choice would likely always be a speaker from that other religion.

    By the way, all the best with your migration over to Patheos!

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    I definitely think that the best response is to ask people to put themselves in the other person’s place and imagine how they would feel if the prayer was based on another religion, and if that religion was the majority in their country and state, so that they could expect that the students’ choice would likely always be a speaker from that other religion.

    By the way, all the best with your migration over to Patheos!

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    I definitely think that the best response is to ask people to put themselves in the other person’s place and imagine how they would feel if the prayer was based on another religion, and if that religion was the majority in their country and state, so that they could expect that the students’ choice would likely always be a speaker from that other religion.

    By the way, all the best with your migration over to Patheos!

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    I definitely think that the best response is to ask people to put themselves in the other person’s place and imagine how they would feel if the prayer was based on another religion, and if that religion was the majority in their country and state, so that they could expect that the students’ choice would likely always be a speaker from that other religion.

    By the way, all the best with your migration over to Patheos!


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