BRAWLEY, Calif. — A school district in California has refused to apologize for disallowing its 2014 salutatorian to speak about his faith during his graduation speech, contending that it was ‘obligated’ to ban the mention of God from the event.
As previously reported, Brawley Union High School student Brooks Hamby defied school officials last month in presenting a bold Christian speech during the ceremony. He explained to those present that he had submitted several drafts of his speech, each of which were rejected because of their religious content, and urged students to do what is right, even if they must stand alone.
“In coming before you today, I presented three drafts of my speech, all of them denied on account of my desire to share with you my personal thoughts and inspiration to you—my Christian faith,” he said. “In life, you will be told, ‘No.’ In life you will be told to do things that you have no desire to do. In life, you will be asked to do things that violate your conscience and desire to do what is right.”
“The advice I give to you is this: No man or woman has ever truly succeeded or been fulfilled on the account of living for others and not standing on what they knew in their heart was right or good,” Hamby declared.
He then quoted the words of Christ from Matthew 5.
“So I will leave you with this, with a quote from the biggest, best-selling book of all time in history: ‘You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot,’” Hamby read.
“Be the salt of the earth. Be strong and stand for your convictions and stand for what is right, what is ethical, what is moral and what is Godly, no matter what is the cost to you,” he exhorted. “Stand for what is good wherever you go and whatever you do.”
Hamby then concluded by again citing his faith.
“Congratulations class of 2014, and may the God of the Bible bless each and every one of you every day for the rest of your lives,” he said, being met with cheers and applause.
Following the incident, the Texas-based Christian legal organization Liberty Institute sent a demand letter to the Brawley School District, asking that it publicly exonerate Hamby of any wrongdoing and affirm that students of faith will not be censored in the future.
“It is a fundamental principle that students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,'” the letter, written by attorney Jeremy Dys, read. “Yet prohibiting, or attempting to prohibit, Mr. Hamby from voluntarily engaging in religious speech is precisely what BUHS officials attempted to do. This kind of censorship is called viewpoint discrimination, and it’s unconstitutional.”
The organization explains that on the day of the graduation ceremony, Hamby and his parents were asked to meet with the principal of Brawley Union High School, and were informed by the school district that if he “interjects religious content, the sound will be cut off, and a disclaimer to the entire audience must be made explaining the district’s position.”
While officials did not cut off Hamby’s microphone as threatened, they have refused to comply with the Liberty Institute’s demands, stating that the district has an obligation to keep God out of the ceremony.
“It is well established in the Ninth Circuit and California that a public school salutatorian has no constitutional right to lead a prayer or include sectarian or proselytizing content in his/her graduation speech,” responded the law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud and Romo on behalf of the district. “The district was legally obligated to ensure prayers and other sectarian, proseltyzing content were omitted from Mr. Hamby’s speech. … Censorship of the speech was necessary to avoid an Establishment Clause violation.”
The Liberty Institute says that it may take the district to court over the matter, and remains confident that Hamby had a right to speak about his Christian faith during his salutatorian speech.
“I think it should never be acceptable to silence students who mention the word God or Jesus,” Hamby told commentator Todd Starnes this week. “I know in my heart that kind of thing is not okay.”