Does Jesus Have a Place at High School Graduation?

A Fla. Public School Valedictorian Quotes Scripture, Fuels Debate

ByABC News
May 30, 2007, 5:31 PM

May 31, 2007 — -- High school valedictorian Shannon Spaulding never expected her graduation speech to create such debate.

But the blond honors student, who graduated at the top of her 383-member class at Wolfson High in Jacksonville, Fla., gave a valedictory speech that some said sounded more like a sermon.

For nearly 20 minutes, Spaulding quoted the Bible and spoke about Jesus Christ, suggesting that those who didn't believe would go to hell. "I want to tell you that Jesus Christ can give you eternal life in heaven," Spaulding said. "If we die with that sin on our souls, we will immediately be pulled down to hell to pay the eternal price for our sins ourselves."

"I guess I don't totally understand why it's such a big deal," she said.

At many points during her address, the crowd offered enthusiastic applause. But a handful of parents, as well as some civil liberties groups, have cried foul.

"If you are Jewish and you hear this and are told to convert or die, you might get upset by that," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

The Duval County schools superintendent, Joseph Wise, issued an immediate apology, saying, "On behalf of the Duval County Public Schools and Wolfson High School, I deeply regret that the student exercised her time in her valedictorian speech in a manner that was offensive and insensitive to some. I applaud the principal, faculty, staff and graduates in their efforts to quickly return the ceremony to its intended and dignified purposes as soon as the speech was completed."

Was Shannon Spaulding exercising her right to free speech? Or did her valedictory address violate the civil rights of others?

Legal experts say that all depends on whether school officials had read and approved her speech.

"If the school retains the authority to review the message, then it becomes the school's message," said Randall C. Marshall, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

He adds, "If what the district has done is allowed unrestricted student-led messages, then it's constitutionally permissible under the law. It would have been equally as permissible for a student to launch into a 20-minute diatribe about how terrible the school system is, or comment on just about anything else."