5th Grader Told He Can’t Take Part in Speech Contest Because His Essay Mentions the Harm Caused by Religion

5th grader Zachary Golob-Drake was supposed to deliver a speech to his fellow 4th and 5th grade classmates yesterday morning. It wasn’t just any speech. It was a speech that was chosen to be the best in his class and Thursday morning was his chance to win a spot as one of the representatives to the regional 4-H Tropicana Public Speech contest.

That glory came to a sudden halt on Wednesday when the assistant principal at USF/Patel Partnership Elementary School in Tampa, Florida pulled Zachary aside to tell him he would have to rewrite his speech or drop out of the contest.

Zachary Golob-Drake holding his first place ribbon

Why? Because Zachary’s speech was all about how religious extremism has hurt humanity and how we’d all be better off following the Golden Rule (like Jesus and Muhammad wanted, he added):

But Golob-Drake says the assistant principal pulled him aside before school was dismissed and told him his speech was inappropriate.

“She started talking to me about how she thought my speech wasn’t appropriate for 4th and 5th graders and she thought that probably I would have to rewrite my speech, take the religion out or not compete.”

“She said to me probably the fairest thing to do is to take your ribbon,” he said, noting that he then got emotional.

By the end of the night, the school decided to postpone the contest until Monday. In the meantime, parents of 4th and 5th graders will receive permission slips. The form will list all of the speech titles and let parents decide whether or not they want their children to hear Golob-Drake’s speech or any of the other speeches.

That’s a complicated way to handle an otherwise simple situation. Zachary isn’t trashing religion in the speech. He’s just saying that some people use it for evil and they shouldn’t do that. Even theists could get on board with him.

School District Spokeswoman Tanya Arja said school officials told her that the controversy wasn’t about the religious aspect.

“The concern was over the topic of mass murders,” Arja said. “Because these are 4th and 5th graders.”

That’s the concern? The kids who have probably played Grand Theft Auto and have seen an untold number of movies with violence in them can’t handle listening to a speech about world history because it’s too real? (Mind you, Zachary says in the speech that mass murder is wrong.) If you can’t talk honestly and openly about the motivations of conquerors, doesn’t that pretty much put a stop to all of the school’s history classes, too?

And why didn’t anyone bring this up when he won the award in his class?

You can read the speech for yourself below. See how offensive you find it:

In the Name of Religion

The world’s major religions all have messages about coexisting. But oftentimes people have found a way to bend that rule; sometimes people even use religion as an excuse to take each other’s lives. The three major religions on the earth include the Eastern religions, Islam, and Christianity. About one billion people live by the Eastern religions; about 1.4 billion are Muslim; and about 2.3 billion are Christians. Religious differences have always sparked conflict, even leading to warfare and mass murder.

One of the most famous tensions is the Crusades. Beginning in 1065, the Crusades were a series of holy wars which were fought between Christians and Muslims. It was the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Urban II who initiated the first wave of attacks. The European Christian’s intent was to force Christianity upon the Muslim people and to win back the Holy Land, known as Jerusalem. They were some of the bloodiest wars ever fought.

In 1162, about the time the Crusades ended, Genghis Khan was born and later crowned Emperor of Mongolia. Khan was a powerful ruler who conquered many lands and civilizations, which inevitably caused the Mongolian Empire to grow. Khan became so powerful that people considered him a god. Khan was known to tell his victims before causing their deaths, “I am the flail of God; for if you were without sin, he would not have sent me upon you.”

For anyone who thinks religious tensions have ended, they have not. Modern terrorism often has to do with religion. Take the story of 911, for example. On September 11, 2001, hijackers commandeered two jets and intentionally crashed them into the Twin Towers in New York, killing thousands of unsuspecting civilians. It has been confirmed that the hijackers were Islamic extremists who wanted to punish the United States for its immoral behavior.

Religion provides moral guidance for most of the seven billion people on the earth. More than 2,500 years ago, Confuscious offered guidance through the Golden Rule when he said, “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” Both Jesus and Muhammad echoed these sentiments hundreds of years later. This world would be a better place if everybody followed that rule.

That’s one 5th grader who’s wise beyond his years.

Again: Administrators didn’t claim he was wrong or inaccurate, only that they didn’t want him mentioning mass murders… even though condemning them is integral to his piece.

The controversy wasn’t about religion, Arja said, yet it was the religion part of his speech that Zachary was told to remove.

Totally makes sense…

Well, here’s what I say to that:

Zachary’s being punished for doling out some harsh facts. He’s not insulting the followers of Christianity or Islam; rather, he’s admitting that most believers live moral, ethical lives because of their faith. There’s nothing offensive about this speech at all.

The school’s going overboard in an attempt to assuage over-sensitive parents. Administrators need to let Zachary compete with the current version of his essay. He worked hard on it, he didn’t say anything untrue, and his argument is a very important one. Even elementary school students understand the Golden Rule. There’s no reason they should be “protected” from the truth about history.

(Thanks to Brian for the link)

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.

  • cecilia

    I read the “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” when I was in Grammar school…I hear ya!

  • cecilia

    I knew about the mass murders during World War 2 When I was his age…kids aren’t stupid

  • The Starship Maxima

    Addendum to previous post, I take back calling her a bitch. Not because I don’t think she’s one, but because the term offends others, including people I respect.
    Rather, I’ll simply call her an intellectually feeble fascist. I think it fits better.

  • The Starship Maxima

    Not quite. I’ve come to respect onamission and if she says it offends her, then I respect that.
    I’ve got an assortment of insults for such wannabe-Nazi thought-police like that vice-principal

  • The Starship Maxima

    No eye-beams for you!

  • The Starship Maxima

    Um, no, not actually.

  • Patrick

    What happened to people saying “Never Forget” after 9/11? Sounds like thats exactly what this guy wants.

  • The Starship Maxima

    Well that’s the thing John. I read the Bible WITHOUT interpretation. When I let go of indoctrination, I started reading the Bible for the words on the page and NOTHING else. No fudging, no finessing, no interpretation. To me, it make a ton of sense.
    Once again, the Bible allowed many things, yes. Allow, or tolerate, is not the same as justify or promote.
    Did God allow for multiple wives? Yes. However, the model of one man and one woman ONLY is promoted heavily in the Bible. Does God leave rules for proper treatment between slavemaster and slave? Yes.
    However, the Bible actually says that “menstealers” (people who kidnap and enslave others) are abominations and cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven. Also, there are also rules that dictate when you must release your slaves.
    Things get mixed up PRECISELY because people spin it a thousand different ways to get their own interpretation.

  • moose

    My kids were involved in 4H for years–it is absolutely NOT religious in any way, shape, or form. God is never mentioned in the pledge, which is utterly secular. A believer can certainly start or lead a group, but the organization is secular. That’s one of the reasons some parents sign their kids up–so they can experience a youth group without the religious crap.

  • Jonathan Vlietstra

    Really would not be surprised if that was the case….
    Otherwise it just seems like another case of sheltering kids from reality, as if pretending history didn’t happen could make it so. No wonder American kids are getting dumber when teachers/principals refuse to accept that certain things happened because the fact they happened makes them feel nervous.
    What’s next, they refuse to teach about WW2? They stop teaching about the civil war and never mention slavery used to exist in the USA?

  • Rachel

    ^and boy I am glad about that. I did very poorly in school before grade 6 or 7 (partly due to learning disabilities and mild ADD) but started to perform much better in later years. Regarding this child, I agree that not winning a 4th and 5th grade speech contest will likely have little to no influence on his educational future. However, enough of these blows could cause him to lose self confidence and might possibly cause him to not work so hard in the future.

  • John O’Brien

    It makes sense? What part about a talking snake convincing a couple of people to eat an apple thereby dooming all humanity makes any sense? What part about a worldwide flood destroying everything except for 2 of each animal and 8 humans living on a boat that could not possibly contain them with mounds of evidence showing there has never been a worldwide flood makes sense? If this book is supposed to provide morals it shouldn’t instruct people on the proper way to beat slaves but should flat out say slavery is wrong and immoral. It never does that.

  • http://127.0.0.1 3lemenope

    Well that’s the thing John. I read the Bible WITHOUT interpretation. When I let go of indoctrination, I started reading the Bible for the words on the page and NOTHING else.

    I don’t mean to be blunt about this, but what you are describing here is impossible. Not difficult. Not improbable. Quite literally impossible.

    Even if it weren’t a translated text in (a couple of) dead language(s) from a civilization far-removed from you and I spatially and temporally (which it very much is), the claim that you read without interpretation is still absolute nonsense. Every figure of speech (every single idiom, similie, metaphor, litotes, hyperbole, metonym, synecdoche, invective and analogy) are, due to the nature of figures of speech, nonsense without interpretation by the reader. Add in a shake of values dissonance, a soupcon of language drift, and a sprinkling of argot, and you’re off to the races.

    Take, for example, just the last sentence in your post:

    Things get mixed up PRECISELY because people spin it a thousand different ways to get their own interpretation.

    It requires interpretation to know that:

    1. “Things” refers not to actual objects but abstract concepts
    2. “get mixed up” does not refer to literally being stirred together, but rather is an idiom for “become confused”
    3. “spin” is a metaphorical usage that has a hint of argot from our modern political context; it refers neither to a physical phenomenon nor the most direct metaphorical analogue; the extra argot “twist” gives it the proper negative implication
    4. “a thousand different ways” is hyperbole, much like the Greek “myriad” (lit. “ten thousand things”) to mean an unspecified or uncountable large number, and not literally a thousand items
    5. even “to get” is problematic literally, since in this context it means “to arrive at”, rather than “to come into possession of”

  • Rachel

    Except that a room full of 8 to 11-year-old children would have no idea that “many newer religions follow similar ideas to the ones that came before them” is in any way offensive to adults. He even wrote it in such a way as to sound like Islam and Christianity were building on their predecessors, not plagiarizing.

  • http://127.0.0.1 3lemenope

    This is a good point, but while post-secondary institutions may not care about what happens before 8th, students can get “tracked” pretty early on due to performance and it can become difficult to gain the requisite skills to succeed later in a different track without an x-factor (genius, wealth, or luck). Standing out early is a good strategy for making sure you stay in the so-called advanced classes, so by the time you get to 8th you’re already ahead.

  • Charles R. Ingrao

    Funny, religious people have no problem indoctrinating children with their ridiculous fairy tale.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    Come back one year!

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    That’s fine; could you please do it without the sexist slurs?

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    Thank you.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    nah, I read that “always” as “this phenomenon is older than dirt”, more than “every damn time there’s a war, it’s religion’s fault.”

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    Kinda disappointing, wasn’t it?

  • http://127.0.0.1 3lemenope

    Quite right. I’m not arguing it’s offensive to people (e.g. kids) approaching this afresh. It’s only folks (e.g. adults) that are sufficiently mired in a “my-way-is-the-only-possible-way” mindset. They could perceive offense because it is an actual threat (intended or not) to the claim that their religion is special or first in this particular regard.

    I agree the kid phrased it as diplomatically as humanly possible. And if I were grading for content, I might have docked points only for the claim that the Crusades were some of the bloodiest wars ever fought, especially since he went and mentioned the subsequent wars–Mongol Conquest–that were conservatively about eight times deadlier over a similar period of time. And I’m a tough grader; Mr. Golob-Drake authored a legitimately awesome speech.

  • http://127.0.0.1 3lemenope

    Otherwise it just seems like another case of sheltering kids from reality, as if pretending history didn’t happen could make it so. No wonder American kids are getting dumber when teachers/principals refuse to accept that certain things happened because the fact they happened makes them feel nervous.

    A fun exercise is asking middle school kids what they were taught about Helen Keller.

    And then pointing them to the Wiki article.

    Wacky hijinks ensue.

  • Pofarmer

    “However, the Bible actually says that “menstealers” (people who kidnap
    and enslave others) are abominations and cannot inherit the kingdom of
    heaven.”

    Eh?

  • Pofarmer

    “That’s one of the reasons some parents sign their kids up–so they can experience a youth group without the religious crap.”

    That’s the thing I loved most about it as a kid, and still do.


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