Texas High School Valedictorian Scores Victory for Religious Freedom
Angela Hildenbrand never dreamed that her valedictorian speech at Medina Valley High School would be covered by the nation's leading news networks. Nor did she ever imagine that the entire country would be so interested in what she had to say. But thanks to the tyrannical action of a federal judge, Angela's graduation speech became one for the history books.
U.S. District Judge Fred Biery had issued an order to the Medina Valley Independent School District in Castroville, Texas, that the district must forbid students from making any references to religion during their recent graduation exercises. Judge Biery ordered the district to remove the words "invocation" and "benediction" from the graduation program, and replace them with the words "opening remarks" and "closing remarks."
Biery further banned from the graduation ceremony the specific use of the words
"prayer, " "join in prayer," "bow their heads," "amen," or any "message that would commonly be understood be to a prayer." He stated that the only religious expression that would be permitted would be conduct such as "kneeling to face Mecca, the wearing of yarmulke or hijab, or making the sign of the cross."
Judge Biery also threatened the school district with dire consequences for failure to comply with his decree. He stated that his ruling would be enforced "by incarceration or other sanctions for contempt of court if not obeyed by District officials and their agents."
Judge Biery's court order was a response to a lawsuit filed by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State on behalf of Christa and Danny Schultz, the parents of one of the students. Biery ruled that the Schultz family and their son would suffer "irreparable harm" if anyone offered a prayer at the graduation ceremony.
Fortunately, Judge Biery did not have the final word in the matter. At the last minute, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an emergency ruling overturning Biery's dictatorial order. The court ruled that students were free to share their religious beliefs during the graduation ceremony. The appeals court decided that legal arguments that voluntary prayers or religious references were "school sponsored" were unlikely to succeed in a formal trial.
The Liberty Institute represented Angela Hildenbrand in her appeal along with the school district anad Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. Kelly Shackelford, President of the Liberty Institute, cheered the appeals court action. "This a complete victory for religious freedom and for Angela. No citizen has the right to ask the government to bind and gag the free speech of another citizen."
Angela expressed relief at the court's reversal of the judicial gag order. "After all I have been taught about the freedoms of speech, expression, and religion in our country, I was disappointed that my liberties were being infringed upon by the judge's ruling to censor my speech. But I feel blessed to have been a part of this and see God's hand through everything. It is a great testament to the faithfulness of God."
Leading Texas officials joined in hailing the ruling by the appeals court. Texas U.S. Senator John Cornyn said: "This is a victory not only for valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand, but also for young people across the country whose rights to express themselves at graduation ceremonies were vindicated. Today the gavel fell on the side of justice and reaffirmed the constitutional rights we hold dear."
Texas Governor Rick Perry castigated Judge Biery's denial of Angela's civil liberties. "This reprehensible action by a federal judge underscores the increasingly inappropriate federal encroachment into the lives of Americans...Texas will continue to stand behind all those who wish to pray in our state."
Attorney General Abbott called the district court ruling an attempt to turn school administrators into "speech police." "This was an unconstitutional effort by atheists and agnostics to use the courts to eliminate from the public landscape any and all references to God whatsoever. This goes to the very heart of the unraveling of moral values in this country."
Judge Biery's outrageous ruling is just the latest in a string of court decisions hostile to religious liberty. The Second U.S Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that New York City public schools must prohibit churches from using their facilities for worship services. The appeals court decided that allowing such use would turn public schools into "state-sponsored Christian churches," and would amount to "excessive government entanglement with religion."
The decision by the Second Circuit flies in the face of a U.S Supreme Court decision known as the Good News Club case. The High Court ruled that Christian organizations cannot be excluded from holding meetings or gatherings in public schools so long as other outside groups are allowed to do the same.
Jordan Lorence, senior counself for the Alliance Defense Fund, predicts the ruling against the Bronx Household of Faith will not stand. "The idea that people of faith may be singled out for discrimination is flagrantly contrary to the U.S. Constitution. Religious groups shouldn't be discriminated against simply because they want to rent a public building just like other groups can."
The opponents of religious freedom aren't giving up in their efforts to establish atheism as America's state religion. The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) is continuing their effort to abolish the National Day of Prayer. FFRF is asking the Seventh Circuit Court to reconsider its decision upholding the designation by Congress of the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer.
The Seventh Circuit had struck down an extreme ruling by U.S District Judge Barbara Crabb of Wisconsin. Judge Crabb ruled that the National Day of Prayer was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The Seventh Circuit disagreed, stating that a presidential proclamation of a National Day of Prayer does not "coerce" any citizen to engage in prayer.
So what exactly did Angela Hildenbrand have to say in her valedictory address? She included this prayer:
"Lord, I thank you for the blessing of this day and the amazing group of people you surrounded me with. Lord, I thank you so much for your presence in our lives through these 18 years. And I just praise you for your incredible faithfulness through all adversity and all joy.
God, I thank you just so much for the freedom to be here today. And most of all, I thank you for loving us first.
God, I ask that you please keep each of us safe and well, as we all go our separate ways. And I can't wait to see where you'll be leading each of us. I ask that you'll ask us to remember where we came from, and to know where we stand.
God, I thank you for the gift of your son and for the forgiveness that surpasses all understanding. And most of all, I thank you for your great love for us, and for our great nation, where we are free.
And it's in Jesus' name I pray. Amen."
The crowd in the Medina Valley High School stadium erupted in cheers at the conclusion of Angela's prayer, and her classmates responded with a standing ovation.
It is hard to comprehend that there is a growing sentiment in our culture that remarks like those presented by Angela are somehow a threat to the future of our Republic. In fact, our Founding Fathers would not have sat in stony silence at the conclusion of her tribute to the Author of our Freedoms, as school administrators found it necessary to do. They would have been the first ones to rise to their feet to applaud Angela's appreciation of our Creator, who bestowed on us both the ability and the right to speak our mind, and to do so from our heart.
Angela's experience demonstrates once again the importance of amending the Missouri Constitution to protect the religious liberties of Missouri citizens and schoolchildren. Missouri voters will have the opportunity to do so next year. The proposed amendment clarifies that every Missourian has the right to pray and acknowledge God in any setting. Should it pass, students like Angela will have the confidence to proclaim their ideals without fear of intimidation or animosity because of their religious beliefs. This kind of bullying has no place in a free society, all the more so one that owes its prosperity to decades of distinctly religious heritage.
You can watch Angela's commencement remarks by clicking this link:
Valedictorian Angela Hildenbran