The Student Who Mentioned Jesus During Her Graduation Speech Was Never Going to Go to Jail

I was reading an article by Paul Strand of the Christian Broadcasting Network about how high school graduates are being encouraged by Christian lawyers to talk about God during their graduation speeches because we got your back… even though it’s news to me that anyone was persecuting them in the first place.

The article is set up like a battle between the forces of Good and Evil; they’re the good Christian soldiers who just want to share God’s love and we atheists/secularists are the wicked ones trampling all over religious freedom.

But there was one bit that caught my attention:

“Any student who’s been asked to speak at graduation should know this: the school district cannot tell them not to mention their religious faith,” [attorney Jeff] Mateer, general counsel for Liberty Institute, told CBN News.

In 2011, a judge threatened to throw valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand in jail.

“The court’s order said there could be incarceration if anyone mentioned Jesus or said ‘amen’ during any of the speeches,” Liberty Institute attorney Justin Butterfield said, but a federal appeals court disagreed.

Mateer’s right about that first statement. Student speakers can give a shout-out to God if they want to — but the school cannot be a part of that. That means prayer can’t be an official, formal part of the ceremony. That’s why school officials often say they will not pre-screen speeches — so they can’t be held responsible when it’s full of Godly phrases (*wink wink nudge nudge*).

It’s also important to note that even when students pray on their own, they may be alienating and excluding several students in the process. It may be legal, but it’s still a dick move, especially when you know there are atheists (and other non-Christians) in the audience.

Anyway, it was Strand’s next statement that got to me:

In 2011, a judge threatened to throw valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand in jail.

What?! A Christian student was threatened with jail if she mentioned God? I couldn’t believe it! That’s crazy! I started looking for information on the case but every Christian site I visited seemed to repeat the same soundbyte… with no reference to what the judge actually said. The incarceration bit didn’t appear in the articles I wrote about the graduation… and I feel like I would have noticed a threat of jail made against a school valedictorian.

I even looked at Judge Fred Biery‘s final ruling against the prayers — which was awesome, by the way — but there was no mention of jail.

Finally, I found what all the fuss was about. In a flurry of litigation leading to graduation, Biery had issued an “amended order.”

Here’s what he wrote (PDF):

… it is hereby ORDERED that the Medina Valley Independent School District and its officials, agents, servants, and employees, as well as all persons acting in concert with them, are prohibited from allowing a prayer… to be included in the June 4, 2011 graduation ceremony for Medina Valley High School.

These students, and all other persons scheduled to speak during the graduation ceremony, shall be instructed not to present a prayer, to wit, they shall be instructed that they may not ask audience members to “stand,” “join in prayer,” or “bow their heads,” they may not end their remarks with “amen” or “in [a deity’s name] we pray,” and they shall not otherwise deliver a message that would commonly be understood to be a prayer, nor use the word “prayer” unless it is used in the student’s expression of the student’s personal belief, as opposed to encouraging others who may not believe in the concept of prayer to join in and believe the same concept. The students may in stating their own personal beliefs speak through conduct such as kneeling to face Mecca, the wearing of a yarmulke or hijab or making the sign of the cross.

Because this suit seeks to enforce fundamental constitutional norms, it is further ORDERED that the security requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65(c)is waived, and that this injunctive order shall be effective immediately and shall be enforced by incarceration or other sanctions for contempt of Court if not obeyed by District official and their agents.

It’s strong language, yes, but it’s saying that school officials cannot have any part in a graduation prayer. It also says that students should not use this platform to invite others to pray with them. If they’re sharing their personal beliefs, it’s fine.

That’s the same position, by the way, held by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation and all those other heathen-y, “anti-Christian” groups.

And what did Hildenbrand say at graduation?

“In the Son Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.”

That’s purely personal — she even said In Jesus’ name “I pray,” not “we pray.” It wasn’t inviting everyone to join her in prayer. More importantly, she wasn’t influenced or pressured by her school administration to say any of that. What she did was perfectly fine — and no church/state separation group argued against it.

And yet, the way the story was spun by the Christian media, you would think Angela could have been handcuffed the moment she stepped offstage.

What she did wasn’t brave or noteworthy — it rarely is when you’re saying something the majority already agrees with. Students across the country are always free to mention their religious beliefs in a graduation speech — even if it’s a metaphorical “fuck you” to all the non-Christians students — and many do. More importantly, FFRF and AU and the ACLU aren’t trying to stop those students. They’re only concerned when public school officials get involved in any sort of graduation prayer.

What Strand’s story suggests is that Christians don’t have any actual stories of persecution. They have to resort to patching some together using whatever bits of string they can find.

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.


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