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Religious graduation speech in Macon raises issues over separation of church and state

The Macon County School system has changed its tune on the controversial preacher who delivered an overtly religious speech at Nantahala School’s June graduation ceremony.

Superintendent Dan Brigman initially defended the content of the speech in an article published in The Smoky Mountain News, but after receiving a complaint from the national Freedom From Religion Foundation, Brigman said “circumstances prevented a proper vetting” of the Nantahala graduation speaker.

Brigman said the school system “will ensure that future graduation speakers refrain from religious speech.”

In an Aug. 4 letter responding to the foundation’s complain, Brigman didn’t expressly say that the school had erred, but implied that the vetting process had failed when the Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart was picked as the commencement speaker.

Stewart offered prayers at the graduation and delivered a sermon that involved wrapping a student volunteer in ropes to demonstrate the hold of the devil.

Rebecca Markert, attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said she sent a letter to the school system after a local resident contacted the foundation with concerns.

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Her letter, sent more than a month prior to Brigman’s response, asked that the school system take “immediate steps to ensure that religious ritual and proselytizing” stay out of graduations in the future.

In his response, Brigman defended the school system, saying that it didn’t and wouldn’t intentionally schedule a prayer or sermon. Markert, however, pointed out that the school should’ve known Stewart’s intent.

“Not only should the district have realized Stewart was apt to view the speaking engagement as a carte blanche invitation to abuse the situation to proselytize to a captive audience, but the district is on record endorsing his sermon,” said Markert’s letter. “Your very own public statements about the sermon expressed no disapproval.”

Indeed, Brigman told The Smoky Mountian News and other media outlets that he saw no problem with Stewart, as he had been chosen by the graduating students.

“It wasn’t a revival, but he had some strong encouraging words for the kids to make good decisions,” Brigman told The Smoky Mountain News after the graduation.

Student-led prayer is allowed in schools, but the law prohibits outside speakers or school-sponsored events from including religious elements such as prayers, sermons or Biblical object lessons.

Markert said this is a situation she sees quite often. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national membership organization with chapters around the country. It’s dedicated to preserving the separation of church and state.

“We cover a wide range of state-church violations,” said Markert. “The biggest complaints we receive are about religion in schools.”

As the staff attorney, Markert acts on those complaints, conducting background investigations and then sending what are essentially cease-and-desist letters and pushing issues into court when necessary.

She sends out between 10 and 20 letters a week, and mostly what she’s looking for in return are letters such as Brigman’s: a mea culpa of some sort and promise of better future behavior.

Mostly, she said, that’s what she gets, especially in school cases, because the law is so clear.

“I think there’s been rare occasions where we haven’t heard back and in those instances we have talked to the plaintiffs to see if they’re interested in suing. But really, it rarely every happens,” said Markert.

The school system’s response signals, perhaps, that they were aware of such a legal threat.

“Macon County Schools is committed to protecting the rights of its students, parents and teachers,” Brigman wrote in the letter. “We do employ a process to prevent the presentation of inappropriate materials to our students.”

This time around, Brigman referred all questions on the issue to the school system’s lawyer, John Henning. Henning said that the school system’s policy was not at fault, but it wasn’t exactly followed in this situation.

“The process that we would follow now is that presentations or materials that will be presented need to be reviewed by the principal and the principal will make a determination,” said Henning. Nantahala School Principal Robbie Newton died of cancer before the end of last school year, and the duty never fell to anyone else.

Henning, however, said the school system received no complaints from students or residents, but one other letter from a group called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

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