A senior at a Pennsylvania high school had to threaten school officials with a temporary restraining order before they allowed her to give a graduation speech that included references to her Christian faith.
Shannon Wray, salutatorian at Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School, was told by her principal and superintendent that speaking about Jesus Christ during her graduation speech might be “offensive” to some people. She was urged to rewrite her speech in the hope of producing something more “inclusive” and “diverse.”
Wray submitted to the officials a draft of her speech, in which she was supposed to discuss her path in reaching graduation. In order to give a complete speech, she wanted to “talk about what her religion meant to her and how it allowed her to get to the point where she was,” said Joel Oster, Wray’s attorney.
The school did not want Wray to include anything religious in her speech and asked her to remove certain paragraphs that referred to the Christian religion. On Tuesday, June 4, the school finally agreed to let Wray give her speech as written just before attorneys from Liberty Council, a nonprofit legal-defense organization, were about to file a temporary restraining order in federal court.
“We think that is a tremendous success in a student’s right to express themselves in a religious manner,” Oster said.
In her graduation speech on Friday, Wray described Jesus Christ as the One who helped her through school, saying, “He, even more so than the people I love, has been there every day, never forcing me to do anything, but always encouraging me to stretch my limits and strive for the best He has to offer. His name is Jesus; He is my greatest friend.”
Vicki Wray, Shannon’s mother, says the school tried to tell Shannon her speech was in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
“They just didn’t want her to be expressing her religion,” she said.
Liberty told the school that Shannon had the right, per the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, to speak about her Christian beliefs.
Officials from the school were unavailable for comment.
“They have bought into this myth that schools are religious-free zones. You can’t have any mention of religion because some people might potentially find it offensive, and so, therefore, you must strike out all religious speech for the fear that somebody might actually hear it,” Oster told WorldNetDaily.
Shannon was first approached about her speech on May 24. Mrs. Wray says the principal and superintendent told Shannon she needed to change her speech so that it was “non-proselytizing.” Shannon told them she wasn’t forcing her religion on anyone and only wanted to give the reason for her success. She pointed out that she had listened to many things during school that had offended her, but she sat through it anyway. Saying a couple of sentences about Jesus Christ should not be considered offensive, she told them.
“She felt like if she had to give a speech with the religion struck out, it would be an incomplete speech; it would be a lie,” Oster said.
Even after Hollidaysburg High agreed to let Shannon give her speech at graduation without any type of rewriting, interruption or interference, Mrs. Wray said the superintendent still faxed Shannon a letter asking her not to include the speech’s religious portion, because it wasn’t being “fair” to everyone at the ceremony.
Mrs. Wray told WND she was pleased Shannon got to give her speech, but she was disappointed the school didn’t accept it better. She feels that if another graduating student also wished to include something religious in a future speech, the ordeal would start all over again. According to Wray, the school mentioned that they may not let valedictorians or salutatorians give speeches anymore in light of Shannon’s speech.
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