Following complaints from the Freedom From Religion Foundation and local students, the Appleton School District, in Appleton, Wis., has taken action to ensure that district speakers will not impose religious messages on students.
Many irate individuals, including parents, students and district employees, contacted the state/church watchdog last spring to report that the 2019 Appleton North High School graduation included inappropriate religious content by Alvin Dupree, who’s a member of the Appleton Area School District Board of Education.
Dupree, who was the board representative at the June 6 graduation, was introduced as “Pastor Dupree” and started his speech by emphasizing that religious title and saying that he asked God what he should say to the graduating class. Without warning, Dupree brought up a deceased student and led a moment of silence and prayer.
Dupree’s central message to the graduating class was to parade his identity as a Christian. He asked all the Christian students in the audience to clap and repeat after him: “For me, my source of strength is my faith and my relationship with Jesus Christ.” Finally, Dupree made a point of going “off script” in order to promote religion at the end of his speech: “It was typed out to say, ‘Best wishes,’ but I’m changing their script to what I would say: ‘God bless!’ ”
FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote to the district, urging it to prohibit speakers from using official district events as an opportunity to proselytize public school students. This has not been FFRF’s first complaint about Dupree. In response, the district just created strict guidelines for future speakers, which will prevent future speakers from similarly abusing the platform and will also give the district greater control of speakers in general.
The new guidelines emphasize that speaking at district events is a privilege, not a right. Under the guidelines, speakers must submit every word of their speeches for approval by district administrators, and must submit a notarized affirmation that the speaker will not go off-script. The guidelines are strong and broad, allowing the district to avoid many pitfalls in addition to inappropriate religious promotion.
FFRF is pleased with these guidelines because as a school board member, Dupree has repeatedly abused his position to promote his personal religious beliefs to district students. Even after multiple complaints, Dupree was defiant and indicated that he thought he had a right to endorse religion at district events. The new district guidelines powerfully correct this misapprehension.
Although the new district guidelines are subject to administrative discretion, FFRF has received assurances that the District intends to strictly follow the guidelines for all applicable speeches unless unforeseen circumstances would frustrate the guidelines’ purposes. Given Dupree’s history of disregarding students’ rights while speaking at district events, FFRF does not expect the district to offer him the privilege of being a district speaker in the future.
“We applaud the district’s strong action to stand up for its students’ rights of conscience,” said FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Students cannot have freedom of religion without a school system that is free from religion."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,400 members and a chapter in Wisconsin. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.