An Illinois high school valedictorian was told he couldn't mention Jesus Christ in his graduation speech, and a conservative law firm - and Fox News analyst - have come to his defense.
As The Independent Journal Review reports, Sam Blackledge, 17, is graduating high school with a 4.0 grade point average and, as such, is to be the valedictorian at West Prairie High School in western Illinois town of Sciota. He's also a devout Christian, and he wrote his valedictorian speech with multiple references to his faith and to Jesus Christ.
"I had basically — for months — I knew I wanted to talk about Christ in my graduation speech."However, his public school wasn't having any of that. According to Sam, the principal told him that his speech was "inappropriate" for the setting. So Sam offered a compromise: he would open his speech with a disclaimer that his words were his own, and not necessarily those of the school district. The principal refused - twice, says Sam - and offered him a compromise in return: he could go on with his speech if he removed all references to his faith. Sam declined.
"Christ is the only reason I was a valedictorian. He's the reason I got that 4.0. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be up there. I was giving him the credit for that."
Eventually, the two sides reached an agreement: Sam could go ahead with his speech as written, but he had to not mention Jesus Christ by name. He agreed, he says, because "as a Christian, we should respect the authority above us."
Still, he's not happy about it. And, he's got some powerful allies on his side.
For one, he's got First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty law firm, in his corner - the firm offered him their assistance on Sunday afternoon. According to their website, the firm has advocated on behalf of religious-freedom-in-schools issues in court before, including an Ohio case in which a school is attempting to shut down pre-game prayers before athletic events.
First Liberty Institute attorney Jeremy Dys says that neither Sam, nor any other high school student, hangs his religious freedom at the door when walking into a public high school.
"School officials should remember that students retain their constitutional rights to freedom of expression from the schoolhouse gates, all the way through the graduation ceremony."He's also got Fox News analyst Todd Starnes in his corner. In a Monday op-ed piece, Starnes says that Blackledge is being censored.
"School administrators silenced a young man's voice because he is a follower of Jesus Christ. That sort of anti-Christian censorship must not be tolerated – especially in America."As of this writing, officials at West Prairie High School have not responded to requests for comment.