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Graduation speaker finally gets his say

By Phil Hudgins Contributing Columnist

June 23, 2014

Well, they’ve done it again.


They are public school officials, this time top dogs of the Brawley Union School District in Brawley, California. What they did was tell a young man — three times, no less — that he couldn’t mention God or Jesus in his high school graduation speech. They said that references to his religion were “inappropriate.”


“I didn’t want to compromise my faith,” 18-year-old Brooks Hamby said. He just wanted to say something that would be meaningful and would leave a lasting, positive impact.


His first draft of the speech was written in the form of a prayer. Lord have mercy.


Hamby was called to the front office, where a school counselor advised him that the speech was not acceptable. Later that day — this is the day before graduation, mind you — he submitted his second draft, which boldly referenced the school’s censorship of his first speech. “…If I could pray with you this evening,” his script read, “I would say something along these lines.”


The next morning, just hours before graduation, Hamby and his parents were summoned to the principal’s office. No paddling — just a warning that if this young speaker tried to sneak in some religious content, the microphone would be cut off.


After that meeting, Hamby talked to his pastor and then presented a third version of his speech — this time to the superintendent. This speech, of course, was rejected. In fact, it was returned with every religious reference blacked out. Now they’re getting really serious.


Brooks Hamby wasn’t trying to be a rabble-rouser, he said. He didn’t want to be a rebel. But he didn’t want to compromise his values, either.


At 5:09 p.m., he emailed his fourth speech to the superintendent, the principal and the counselor. And when his time came to speak that night, he had not heard back from any of them. He stood before the microphone and spoke of his faith. And the microphone worked perfectly.


At the end, he said: “May the God of the Bible bless each and every one of you every day in the rest of your lives.”


Obviously many public school officials are paranoid that the court will smite them if some student mentions God in a paper or a speech, violating the separation of church and state. So they overreact. They start editing speeches, like Brooks Hamby’s. They try to prohibit religious clubs meeting on school grounds. They tell a second-grader she can’t sing “Awesome God” in an after-school talent show. They write policies that go too far.


What they ignore or fail to realize, however, is that under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, a student can express his or her religious beliefs in a speech or in a paper or in a song.


Folks, the U.S. Supreme Court is not the enemy. We are the enemy.


Brooks Hamby finally had his say. But he went through a hellish mess before getting to say it.


And it shouldn’t have been that way.


Phil Hudgins is senior editor for Community Newspapers Inc.