Fire and brimstone delivered at public graduation

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint on behalf of its North Carolina members about a fire-and-brimstone commencement speech by a Baptist preacher to the nine graduating seniors and the audience June 4 at Nantahala High School in Nantahala, N.C.

The school is part of Macon County Schools in Franklin.

During the speech, according to an account in The Andrews Journal, Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart bound a volunteer on stage with ropes while proclaiming, “The devil is out to destroy you, to tie you up. These people who took drugs, overdosed and died didn’t mean to. They got tied up.”

In a later story, the Waynesville Smoky Mountain News called the overall speech, with repeated biblical references, "a rousing sermon." Stewart himself called it a sermon.

Religion in Macon County Schools is "out of control," according to FFRF's complainant.

In her June 29 letter to Superintendent Dan Brigman, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted that the school can't legally schedule prayer as part of its graduation ceremonies, and added that Stewart "obviously abused his speaking opportunity to proselytize a captive audience."

According to the Smoky Mountain News story, Brigman "conceded that describing the [actual graduation] scene might sound strange, but being there, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary."

“ 'The kids get to choose who the speakers are year by year,' said Brigman, and because Stewart was chosen by the students, he didn’t see a constitutional conflict inherent in the sermon."

Markert wrote that the district should have realized that Stewart was apt to view the speaking engagement as "a carte blanche invitation to abuse the situation to proselytize," and noted that Brigman's public statements about the sermon expressed no disapproval.

It's no defense that the students invited Stewart, Markert added, because the graduation was ultimately a school-sponsored event.

"I respectfully request that you take immediate steps to ensure that prayer is not scheduled at future commencement ceremonies. What many districts have done to avoid such a problem is adopt a written policy to give to speakers. Please inform me in writing of the steps you are taking to remedy these concerns at your earliest convenience."

In a strong editorial June 17 that was headlined "Graduation not a time for sermons," The Andrews Journal said, "We doubt Nantahala will be challenged for this violation of the Constitution. However, public schools and religious leaders cannot continue to flout the rule of law — even if they believe it is unjust."

"Talk about a captive audience!" said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, referring to the pastor's bizarre rope trick. "The focus of public high school graduates ought to be on students, their achievements and futures, in keeping with our secular public education. The district may countenance this off-the-wall sermon disguised as a speech, but our Constitution does not."

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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