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News Secular group confronts Macon Schools over Nantahala’s religious commencement

Dan BrigmanThe staff attorney from a national organization dedicated to preserving the Constitutional separation of church and state has sent a formal letter to Macon County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Dan Brigman, requesting that he “take immediate steps to ensure that religious ritual and proselytizing” are kept out of high school graduation ceremonies from now on.

The letter from the nonprofit organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is in direct response to the sermon delivered last month by Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart during a commencement address given last month at Nantahala School. The graduation ceremony was held on June 4 in the gymnasium of the small, K-12 school in the mountainous northwest corner of Macon County.

click here to read the letter ]

Though the school is small and isolated, Stewart’s commencement address has caused quite a stir, with a number of reports and op/eds appearing in regional publications, as well as on numerous blogs around the country.

One hundred percent of Nantahala’s nine seniors graduated this year, and it was the students who chose Stewart, a pastor at a Baptist Church in Robbinsville, to deliver their commencement address. But according to Rebecca Markert, the attorney who drafted the letter, religious ceremonies during school-sponsored events, whether or not they are student-initiated, are illegal.

“Even if student-initiated, school officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation, benediction, or sermon at a public high school graduation,” says Markert.

Stewart’s unusual commencement address, first reported by the Andrews Journal, included a benediction and what Markert calls “a colorful, over-the-top sermon” in which, with the help of a student volunteer, the reverend illustrated the pull of the devil on young people after they graduate.

Describing the devil as a “roaring lion,” Stewart used colorful ropes of various sizes to illustrate the danger, wrapping his volunteer until he was nearly unable to move. He then covered the volunteer’s head with a sack.

“Even if student-initiated, school officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation, benediction, or sermon at a public high school graduation.” – Attorney Rebecca Markert

“The devil is out to destroy you, to tie you up,” Stewart was quoted as saying. “These people who took drugs, overdosed and died didn’t mean to. They got tied up.”

According to Markert, Stewart “obviously abused his speaking opportunity to proselytize to a captive audience.” Markert notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down prayers at school numerous times, including in the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman, which declared clergy delivered prayers at public school graduations unconstitutional.

Markert also claims that by not expressing disapproval of the address, Superintendent Brigman had given a tacit endorsement of it.

While Brigman says that he intends to direct schools’ attorney, John Henning Jr., to draft a response to Markert’s letter, he also plays down reports of the presentation and notes that his office had received no complaints from the community about it.

“If you took the sum of the information that was shared [by Stewart] out of the presentation and talk about it with a third party, it would sound more extreme than it really was,” said Brigman who attended the ceremony. “I think the pastor tied the decision-making process in with his speech, as well as tying it in with scripture.”

Indeed, in a region where it is not uncommon to precede public meetings with prayer, including the monthly meetings of the board of education, the county board of commissioners and other public boards, it is likely that no one in attendance at the ceremony found the content of Stewart’s address surprising.

“The students chose Stewart, and I put confidence in the students’ discretion, however we will take careful note of future exercises. If you took the sum of the information that was shared [by Stewart] out of the presentation and talk about it with a third party, it would sound more extreme than it really was,” said Brigman who attended the ceremony. “I think the pastor tied the decisionmaking process in with his speech, as well as tying it in with scripture.” - Dr. Dan Brigman, Macon County Superintendent of Schools


“Even if student-initiated, school officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation, benediction, or sermon at a public high school graduation.” – Attorney Rebecca Markert

On the other hand, Brigman also suggests that school policy on commencement addresses – and the speakers students choose – may be monitored more closely in the future. “The students chose Stewart, and I put confidence in the students’ discretion, however we will take careful note of future exercises,” Brigman said.

For his part, Rev. Stewart, who is the Pastor at Cedar Cliff Baptist Church, says he was very surprised by the controversy. He also noted that he was invited to speak by the students, who know him as a pastor. “I didn’t have a clue,” said Stewart when asked if he had anticipated any negative response from his address. “When you are invited in as a minister, I didn’t expect anything.”

Stewart, who says he often works with youth groups, stressed the practical core of his message. “It’s all about the youth,” he said. “If you can help them get a right foot up, tell them about some of the pitfalls out there, that’s what you do in the ministry.”

Incoming Nantahala principal James Bryan, who was not principal at the time of the graduation ceremony, declined to comment on the issue, referring all questions to the superintendent.

In the conclusion to her letter, Markert notes that many districts have avoided such problems by adopting a written policy that can be given to speakers at school functions ahead of their engagements. Brigman did not say whether an explicit district policy would be considered.





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published: 10/18/2013
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