Public School Superintendent Tells Graduating Students to Live Up to God’s Expectations

Is there anyone who doesn’t abuse his or her position at graduation ceremonies anymore? Already this spring, we’ve seen student speakers and teachers use their power to promote prayer, and now we have a superintendent doing it, too.

Earlier this month, Superintendent Damian LaCroix of the Howard-Suamico School District in Green Bay, Wisconsion spoke at the commencement ceremony for Bay Port High School and used his time to encourage parents in the audience to pray, pray, and pray, and told students to be the people God wants them to be.

You can hear the full speech beginning at the 1:27:04 mark of the video below:

Parents in the audience today, this is the only part of my speech where I comment directly to you. While the fact that your child is about to graduate may, in fact, be an answer to your prayers, allow me to underscore what I think [inaudible] of [Neil] Armstrong’s courage and inner strength: praying parents. You see, life can be a hard teacher, as it sometimes gives the tests first and the lessons after. Therefore, beyond any other acts and years to come, like Armstrong, your sons and daughters need your persistent prayers, for wisdom, humility, and discernment in facing the inevitable tests and trials and challenges that might [inaudible] prayer. Therefore and simply, lesson number one is to pray. The power of prayer is evident if you study the trajectory of Neil Armstrong’s life…

Remember that your circumstances do not define you. Rather, they reveal the character of the person that God created you to be. Did you know that you are engineered for excellence? Did you know that you are designed for accomplishment? Will you honor the Giver of the gifts by living a life of excellence as you prepare to leave here today?…

Congratulations class of 2013. God’s blessings and Godspeed to all of you.

Got that students? The hard work you do is secondary to the potential that God gives you. And if Neil Armstrong’s parents didn’t pray for him, he wouldn’t have gone to the moon. And if your parents don’t pray for you, you won’t have any wisdom and you’ll basically be screwed the rest of your life.

(You can imagine the outrage if LaCroix had told students and parents that God had nothing at all to do with their accomplishments and that denouncing Him was a prerequisite for their future successes.)

Immediately after it happened, new reports quoted a 2012 graduate as being a voice of reason:

A superintendent of a public school district should not be [proselytizing] or evangelizing at a public school event like a graduation ceremony, for example,” said Vandermause, a Class of 2012 alumnus.

Vandermause says he and his friends found LaCroix’s mentions of the power of prayer, and the importance of God in a student’s accomplishments, offensive.

As for some of the former students, they feel the speech could have been more inspiring without isolating those who aren’t religious.

“I come from a religious background and I still think it’s deeply important that church and state remain separate and Damian LaCroix cater to everyone in the audience,” said Vandermause.

FFRF is already on the case, asking the school district to promise in writing (PDF) that employees of the district will not promote their personal religious beliefs at school-sponsored events in the future. They’re also calling for Superintendent LaCroix to be publicly reprimanded:

“From a practical point of view, here we have a superintendent giving all the credit for students hard work over thirteen years to religion, instead of the students,” commented FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliot stated in the letter: “Instead of giving a commencement speech that was inclusive of all Bay Port High School graduating students and their parents, Superintendent LaCroix gave an inherently exclusionary speech that contained references to God, contrary to his role in representing the whole school district. These statements by the head of the school system set a poor example for other school staff.”

This is the same school district, by the way, that featured a Christian cross in a promotional video (at the 0:26 mark) three years ago.

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.

  • Gus Snarp

    This is the district superintendent, not just some principal or teacher. He should know better. He should be fired.

  • C Peterson

    In other words, he told the students to aspire to nothing, to have no expectations, to live up to no standards. What a wonderful message to send to a bunch of young adults.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Just like Jesus instructed. So, at least he is consistent with his religion. Though, Jesus only knows why he aspired to be a PSS. That’s breaking the commandment.

  • EllieMay

    If I weren’t such an ethical person, I might be tempted to make a lot of money off the parents of students who all these different schools personnel cater to. I’d blanket the US with Christian academies and offer all these rogue personnel positions in them. Our motto might be, “Good Grades by the Grace of God.”

    Unfortunately my conscience would never allow me to do such a thing; I could not deliberately doom thousands of children to ignorance.

  • Hat Stealer

    I think people like this feel that they get brownie points every time they say the word “pray” in public. It makes for lousy speeches, but hey! At least they’re going to heaven.

  • David Miller

    If he wants to pray & preach, he ought resign as an educator & become a preacher instead.

  • Savoy47

    What motivation does the offender have to follow the law? Every time the FFRF wins a case it’s the tax payers who pay. The offender walks away without penalty. They get
    their Jesus points and that only reinforces the behavior and encourages others to do more of the same. The government employee offender can be sued personally for their actions.

    The Supreme Court of the United States in Harlow v. Fitzgerald ruled; We therefore hold that government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.

    Once a few of them have to pay a personal penalty and word about it spreads around, I think people will think twice before doing it again.

    Next time a government entity is sued or notified that they will be sued, go after them personally as well.


    How many prayers, do you suppose, were offered up during the holocaust?

  • flakingnapstich

    Well, it’s the message he lives by, and look where it got him!

  • flakingnapstich

    Well, there were Jews praying to be saved, and Christian Germans praying for the Jews to die. Clearly, God prefers Christian prayers, even when the Christians are asking for something abominable.

    Besides, what evidence is there that Superintendent Damian LaCroix of the Howard-Suamico School District in Green Bay, Wisconsin even believes the Holocaust happened? Using the Holocaust to highlight the flaws in his arguments may very well be as absurd to him as telling an Atheist they’re going to Hell. You cannot threaten a man with something he does not believe in.

  • LesterBallard

    I wish I was a young atheist in high school these days, so I could just get up and walk out on a situation like this, and then sue.

  • flakingnapstich

    I other words, you’re more moral than the leaders of every unaccredited Christian College or University in the nation. Sadly, that’s not saying much.

  • Art_Vandelay

    Question for anyone…I went to my daughter’s elementary school graduation this morning. More of an awards ceremony but whatever. So they had the kids perform four songs dedicated to teachers, parents, and the principal. The song that they had them sing for the principal was that fuck-awful Lee Greenwood, “God Bless the USA” song. The kids are mostly Christian. My kid at the least is an atheist. I really don’t care at all and would never say anything…she did it just as she does the pledge every morning. Just wondering if that would technically be a transgression by the school?

  • ElRay

    Hemant, shouldn’t the title of this article be: “Superintendent tells Graduating Seniors Their 13 Years of Work was Wasted”?

  • Brian Westley

    I’d say yes, there are plenty of non-religious songs that would do just as well.

  • oneeye

    How does gawd have expectations when she already knows what’s going to happen? Isn’t that part of her plan?

  • Rich Wilson

    My memory of it is that if they also included secular or other-religions, then it’s probably legal. Since you don’t say anything about the other three songs, I’d personally chalk that up to “eye-roll”.

    Here’s FFRF’s take on it

  • new_atheist

    I keep wondering what would happen if an atheist speaker were to say something like…

    “As you move into the next phase of your life, you will hear preachers, self-appointed prophets, and perhaps even friends and family try to sell you a truckload of religious and “spiritual” nonsense. Beware of these snake oil salesmen and pseudo-intellectuals.

    Cast off vapid and unreliable concepts like faith – concepts that offer
    nothing of demonstrable virtue and require that you give up the gift
    that millions of years of evolution have given you: your ability to

    Be good skeptics. Be critical thinkers. Care about what you believe and why. You are no longer children who have the luxury of naivety. It is your responsibility as an individual and as a member of the human race to have rational, demonstrable, verifiable, and factual reasons for the positions you hold and the claims you make.

    Learn to deal with reality on reality’s terms rather than simply believing things because they feel good, because someone told you to believe them, or because someone has threatened you with eternal damnation if you don’t. This is the way we will all make real progress as a species, as a society, and as individuals.”

    Do you think the religious would have any problem with this kind of message? After all, the speaker is just presenting their viewpoint. Aren’t they free to do that? Or, is graduation at a public school not the place for religious, political, and social grandstanding?

  • Art_Vandelay

    Lean on Me, Wind Beneath my Wings, and Time of Your Life. Yes…I wept like a little girl with a skinned knee.

  • cary_w

    That’s a very good question. There is a big difference between asking the audience to “bow your heads and pray with me”, and singing a song that happens to mention God. The intent of the song needs to be considered, and in this case it could be argued that the intent is patriotism and music, not prostlatizing. Another thing to consider is whether it’s worthwhile to complain about one questionable song when everything else is fine. Complaining about “God Bless America” plays right into the hands of Christians who claim their kids are not allowed to pray in school and any mention of God is banned, both totally untrue; save your complaints for something more obvious.

    I was thinking the same things a few weeks ago at my son’s high school graduation. The choir sang a song called “The Blessing” that was all about feeling blessed because you have such a good life, or something. The acoustics were terrible so I could understand all the words, but it clearly had some religious overtones. I had to ask myself if this offended me as an atheist, and I had to conclude that it didn’t, it’s just a song, the main purpose for it was to have some music at the graduation, and it was one of several songs and the rest were not religious at all. What I’ve concluded from all this is that if there weren’t all the in-your-face prayers and prostletizing still going on in public schools, then occasional religious song or student speech that personally thanks Jesus, would be no big deal, because they ARE no big deal. We only start seeing them as a problem when we lump them in with all the other outrages crap that is still going on in public schools.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    Ah damn, excellent lineup apart from that first crappy one you mentioned.

    Stupid Bette Midler, why do you have to be so overwhelmingly obnoxious and still have a song and movie that make me get dust in my eyes?

  • WallofSleep

    “The power of prayer is evident if you study the trajectory of Neil Armstrong’s life…”

    Right. That’s why we have a couple of hundred million Neil Armstrongs here. Why, you can’t swing a dead cat anywhere in this country with out hitting a few pioneering astronauts.

  • Art_Vandelay

    Truth. Even more brutal when your 10 year old daughter and her 5th grade class is singing it to you.

  • MD

    Neil Armstrong prayed his way to the moon. Yessiree.

  • dbutters

    I think the inaudible phrase in the first paragraph is “facing the inevitable tests and trials and challenges that LIFE WILL BRING.”

  • Art_Vandelay

    Yeah, I think I agree with you. I’m more offended by the crappiness of the song than the religious overtones. I have absolutely no intention of complaining. It just seemed unnecessary…like it didn’t fit, ya know? That’s kind of a weird song to dedicate to the school principal even without the God stuff.

  • Rich Wilson

    A local mega church holds a giant “Celebrate America” event at the end of June every year. They give the same speech every year before the fireworks, with a bunch of “Only in America” lines, including a bunch of examples of people who ‘made it big’. Ignoring of course the fact that people can start with nothing and be successful in other countries, and their examples didn’t exactly start from nothing, I’m always amused by their choices of:

    Bill Gates
    Warren Buffet
    and Steve Jobs

    I’m sure prayer had a LOT to do with their success.

    (Edit: and I had to check wiki to be sure, but yes, Armstrong was a Deist)

  • Rich Wilson

    “Spirit in the Sky”, although perhaps not appropriate for the exact message (not that the song they picked was) would be cool and I’d be loving it.

    Maybe it was a personal favorite of the principal?

  • Art_Vandelay

    Maybe, but they also did it to a slideshow of US soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan which if I’m a Muslim…I’d probably be a little uncomfortable.

  • Rich Wilson


  • Michael W Busch

    There is no evidence that LaCroix is a holocaust denialist. Let’s not attribute more failings to him than there is evidence for. His violating separation of church and state is bad enough.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    Hmm, this is two hours away from me.

    I think the superintendent would be happy to know that my made up god expects me to commit global genocide by the age of 42 and he also wants me to rob banks.

  • DougI

    Live up to God’s expectations? So should I buy a wife, fuck my brother’s wife, and how many concubines should I get after I get married and start popping out kids who I can sell into slavery?

  • Good and Godless

    [Neil Armstrong's mother] wrote on October 27, 1969, to a Methodist minister in Iowa … “but when he was a senior in high school, and even more in college, he began wondering about the truth of Jesus Christ. I felt sure he was praying less…. [Today] he is not teaching his own two fine sons about Jesus Christ. This fact causes a million swords to be pierced through my heart constantly.”

  • Willy Occam

    Now THAT’S an inspirational speech! Of course, the religionists would go apoplectic if they heard it.

  • pagansister

    Which god are they to pray too? A Christian god, a Jewish god (are they the same one??) a Muslim god—a Pagan god or goddess—I’m all confused! Oh wait—-there isn’t a god in my life—now what do I do? Life life and totally enjoy!!