Anti-War Case That Protects Students’ Faith Liberty

By Paul Strand

CBN News, WASHINGTON – In a country known for liberty, an ironic feature of late is the many cases where students have had their religious liberty trampled on at school.

Such was the case with Brooks Hamby, who was awarded for his excellent grades and record with the opportunity to give the salutatorian speech at his high school graduation this June in small town Brawley, California.

But his school forced Brooks to rewrite the speech over and over again because administrators didn’t like his plans to pray and talk about his faith and God in it.

“And they told me that if I proceeded to give that speech that the microphone would be cut,” Hamby told CBN News.  “Finally on the third draft, they ended up just blacking out any reference to God or faith that was in my speech.”

The Liberty Institute’s Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys has been representing Hamby.

“It’s egregious that the school would say that ‘No, you can’t give the speech that you want to give.’  This is his only time to give a salutatorian speech, and they denied him that right on three separate occasions,” he said.

But on advice from his pastor, family and friends, Hamby boldly went ahead and referred to his faith and God and even quoted the Bible despite his school’s threat to silence him.

“The school didn’t cut the mic off, although I was told that they had their finger on the mute button the entire time, ready to push it whenever it was needed,” Hamby said.

Still, for all his troubles, Liberty Institute – a legal organization that exclusively deals with religious liberty cases — has demanded justice for Hamby from his school.

“Once we sent a demand letter and said, ‘Look, you need to apologize for what you’ve done here,'” Dys told CBN News. “They had the audacity to send us back a 10-page lecture that said ‘not only can we censor his religious liberty in his speech; we’re required to censor his religious liberty.'”

Tinker v. Des Moines

But if Hamby’s case should end up in a court, a judge would almost certainly cite the Supreme Court’s 1969 ruling in “Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District” in saying Hamby’s religious rights must be respected.

And what’s ironic is that the Tinker case, quoted often by legal experts in defense of religious liberty for students, actually had nothing to do with religious liberty at all.  It was about the right of students protesting the Vietnam War to wear black armbands in school.

Liberty Institute President Kelly Shackelford is author of the new book Supreme Irony.

In it, he writes about the Tinker case and the brave kids — of Mary Beth and John Tinker–  who faced punishment and derision in the mid-1960s for wearing those anti-war armbands after their Des Moines Iowa schools forbade it.

The Tinkers and their friend Christopher Eckhardt ended up in the nation’s highest court, where the justices ruled 7 to 2 for the students’ right to wear their armbands.

“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the majority plainly, said.

Shackelford said that means, “When you come to school, even public schools, you still have a right to express your opinion.”

Shackelford named his book “Supreme Irony” because it was the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, an affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, that represented the anti-war students and won the rights protected by the Tinker ruling, even though today’s ACLU often opposes some of those rights.

“I think if they would have known that this opened the floodgates for religious freedom being protected in the schools, they would have had second thoughts,” Shackelford explained.  “Because even now there are cases that come up – for instance if a student wants to wear a T-shirt that disagrees with homosexuality – the ACLU refuses to help that student.”

Some say schools should be an exception when it comes to protecting religious and free speech rights because of the need for discipline and order.

Shackelford agrees, but just a little.

“Now you don’t have the right to stand up in the middle of math class and give an oratory speech, but everybody has a right under the First Amendment,” Shackelford said.

“They don’t lose that because they’re on a government sidewalk or they’re in a government school, anything like that,” he continued.  “In fact, those areas are the areas where it’s most fully protected.”

Still, the message from what happened with Hamby’s graduation speech just this past June is lovers of liberty must be ever vigilant.

“I was pretty stunned that something like this could happen even in little old Brawley, California,” Hamby said.  “So if it can happen in Brawley, it can certainly happen anywhere else.”

Report via CBN News

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

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