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.
[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.