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Cowboy preacher delivers maverick graduation speech

Graduation ceremonies are, by their nature, boring. The bookend of an educational phase is supposed to be a solemn occasion, launching you into the world with the gravity of education behind you. That’s how they’re designed.

And, by and large, most graduation speeches are the same. Not dissimilar to Ben Stein’s signature performance in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” — toneless uninspired droning — it may actually a decent speech, but its pleasant advice quickly fades into the background. It’s a graduation speech. No one remembers it. That’s how they’re designed. Most of the time.

The Nantahala School’s nine-member graduating class of 2011 probably won’t forget their commencement speaker, though.

The school is small — its senior class not even large enough to populate a soccer team — and tucked into a remote corner of Macon County, perched on a winding road that snakes up the mountainous regions of the Upper Nantahala River.

When asked who they wanted to speak at their graduation, they chose Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart.

He’s the pastor of a small Baptist church in nearby Robbinsville.

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Stewart gave a rousing sermon, in which he brought a volunteer on stage, bound them in numerous ropes until they couldn’t move and then placed a bag over their head. It was an object lesson illustrating the prowess of the devil at prowling like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.

“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,” said Stewart, according to an article in the Andrews Journal.

The roaring lion bit was a reference to the Biblical book of 1 Peter, and Stewart’s companion lesson was, by most definitions, memorable.

But it was also, by the Supreme Court’s definition, illegal.

“The courts have been very clear that public schools are places where events must be neutral towards religion,” said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. “The courts have been stricter in applying the establishment clause of the First Amendment to public schools because this is a captive audience of impressionable children, of young people.”

That would be the clause commonly known as separation of church and state, and the courts have long erred on the side of keeping school-sponsored religious messages out of public schools, said Haynes.

Dan Brigman is the superintendent for the Macon County School District, and as part of his job, goes to all the graduations in the district. He gave out diplomas at Nantahala.

“It wasn’t a revival, but he had some strong encouraging words for the kids to make good decisions,” said Brigman. He conceded that describing the scene might sound strange, but being there, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

As for the First Amendment issue? Brigman doesn’t see one.

“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.

And it was a sermon. According to attendees of the ceremony, Stewart himself called his presentation a sermon.

But according to Haynes, students selecting the pastor to pontificate doesn’t absolve the school of constitutional responsibility.

“The end result was the same, that the school was promoting religion, it was unconstitutional. Those kind of attempts to get around the First Amendment don’t work,” said Haynes. “The students can’t vote up or down the First Amendment; it isn’t about how many people are in favor of violating religious freedom.”

He pointed to an illustrious First Amendment opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — “we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.”

Nantahala isn’t the only school that’s had brushes with godly graduation speeches. Over the last few years, valedictorians in Montana, New Hampshire, Nevada and elsewhere have been muzzled or censored for promoting religion in their graduation speeches.

A judge in Connecticut ruled in favor of a school district there that pulled a public school’s graduation ceremony from a church.

The message from the judiciary has been that religion and school-sponsored events don’t mix.

Some, said Henry, say students are legally allowed to speak on religion at graduation in the same way that they can pray in their own classrooms or hold student-led religious events like See You At The Pole.

But outside speakers don’t get that privilege.

Like Brigman, Macon County School Board Chair Thomas Cabe said he wasn’t concerned by the presentation.

“I didn’t really see any problem with it,” said Cabe. “I’m not super religious, but I‘m sure that those people over there wanted it and I‘m sure that if it’d been any religion it would’ve worked.”

Brigman and Cabe didn’t know if the school had a vetting process for the speaker, if anyone had a look at his remarks before he took the stage.

Brigman said he’d never given such a once-over to a speaker in his time as superintendent.

Other schools in the region aren’t running into the same problem, but that’s largely because most don’t have outside speakers to begin with.

Macon County’s other high schools — Highlands High, Franklin High, Macon Early College and Union Academy — all had non-student speakers, but they were benign secular appointments; a retiring educator, a local businessman, a watercolor artist and the superintendent himself.

Haywood and Swain counties both had only student speakers at their high schools, which sidesteps the potential First Amendment land mine.

It’s not like controversial graduation speakers are a new phenomenon, though. Last year, a Philadelphia school tapped Michael Vick, the NFL quarterback recently incarcerated for dog fighting, to grace their ceremony, causing a small contretemps.

But usually such choices are confined to colleges and universities, where the money to afford anyone worthy of controversy is more readily available. And often it’s their presence that causes a stir, not their remarks.

It should be said, too, that Stewart’s remarks, while allegedly at odds with the Constitution, haven’t really caused a stir in Nantahala.

Brigman said his office has fielded no calls on the issue. The nearby Andrews Journal ran a story on the ceremony and an editorial denouncing Stewart’s choice to use it a platform for a sermon, but the responses those garnered in letters to the editor and Facebook comments were mostly in support of Stewart. And mostly from Robbinsville, where Stewart pastors Cedar Cliff Baptist Church.

“Nantahala graduates decided who to speak so allow them their choice without bashing their choice,” said one Graham County commenter, Tracy Shockley.

But on the whole, Nantahalans themselves have been publicly quiet on the brouhaha.

Haynes’ point, however, remains. Constitutionality isn’t up for a vote.

And, he says, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing environment.

“What’s missing from a lot of conversations in school districts is how many ways religion can come into public schools in an appropriate way,” said Haynes. “It isn’t either we keep it all out or we find ways to promote religion. Those two choices are false choices and unconstitutional choices. There is a better way.”

Daniel Stewart could not be reached for comment.

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