Atheists, Clark County Deserve Better

Published 4:30 pm Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Editor, The Herald:

Having read the recent Herald editorial “Texas School Board Shuts Off Microphone Of Valedictorian,” one could be forgiven for thinking this was yet another instance of political correctness run amuck. Looking elsewhere into the story, however, one would find that Brittany McComb (the valedictorian in question) was not pitted against a Texas School Board, but against the Clark County School District in Nevada, and that perhaps some of the sentiments in the Herald editorial were similarly misplaced.

Brittany's speech was well-crafted (she is, after all, a valedictorian), and was not the typical “I want to thank everybody who helped me get here” construction. It was more a polished example of the persuasive essay employing a testimonial, a common format in advertising: “We all know bran is good for us, but who knew it could make you feel so good inside? Bran muffins have turned my life around!” Brittany, however, was selling Jesus, not bran muffins. Her sermonizing was neither tangential to a broader point nor just “a portion” of her address; the entire speech, from start to finish, was a clear sales pitch for Christianity.

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Everyone knows that a youth's right to speak is conditional in a school setting, where disruptive students are regularly asked to stop talking. Since a valedictory address is a privilege the school grants a qualified student and is given at a school-sponsored function to a captive audience, the school has a right to review its content, and the review in turn constitutes approval by the school. In addition to obscenity, threats, or libel, Clark County School officials had to be sure the McComb speech didn't contain religious advocacy, which could put them in legal jeopardy. Those officials didn't tell Brittany her speech couldn't thank God or say how important He was in her life; they just said it could not cross the line into proselytizing. They asked her to remove the more strident parts of her speech, and she agreed.

That's right, she agreed. Then she intentionally tried to give her original speech, and when she was stopped, she and her supporters sued. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case, saying “Defendants did not violate McComb's free speech and free exercise rights by preventing her from making a proselytizing graduation speech.” Now the Supreme Court has essentially agreed by refusing to hear the case.

In a predominantly Christian region such as Southside Virginia, there is doubtless considerable sympathy for Brittney's beliefs, but perhaps less for her misleading methods, which could have put her school in violation of the law. There is a reason we don't allow governmental agencies such as public schools to promote a particular religion the way Virginia once promoted the Anglican Church. Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom broke Virginia's ties with Anglicanism and set our nation on the path to true religious freedom. As a result, Brittany is free to go door to door to testify for Jesus, but she cannot expect a government-supported platform for it.

So why did the Herald's editorial indulge in the irrational and irrelevant remark that “atheism is, in its own way, a religious belief,” as if Clark County's commendable defense of its religious neutrality were (in the editorial's words) “evangelical atheism”? A civil society establishes laws to protect citizens from each other's excesses, however well-intentioned. Our occasional frustration with this fact should not boil over into scapegoating groups we don't care for, or perhaps just don't understand. Both atheists and Clark County deserved better.

A copy of McComb's full speech can be found at

David Lewis