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Religious question sparks controversy at Akin 8th grade graduation

  • Akin salutatorian delivered his speech after ceremony at a house across the street from the school.

    Akin salutatorian delivered his speech after ceremony at a house across the street from the school.
    File photo

Posted on 5/19/2017, 5:00 AM

The small Franklin County community of Akin doesn't even have a post office, but this week's controversy over an eighth grade salutatory speech has plummeted it into the media spotlight.
What would have been a speech heard by about a hundred is now near trending on social media.

Like most area schools, students, usually class presidents, valedictorians and salutatorians, submit their prepared graduation speeches to school officials for approval prior to the ceremony.

When Akin Grade School salutatorian Seth Clark submitted his speech, it contained references to "God-like forgiveness" as well as a quote from the Bible. School officials, reacting to a complaint from a local citizen, decided Seth would not be allowed to deliver the address.

Although she cannot comment on student matters due to federal and state privacy laws, Akin Superintendent and Principal Kelly Clark did release a prepared statement to the newspaper.

"As a public school, it is our duty to educate students, regardless of how different they or their beliefs may be," the statement says. "While students are welcome to pray or pursue their faith without disrupting school or infringing upon the rights of others, the United States Constitution prohibits the school district from incorporating such activities as part of school-sponsored events, and when the context causes a captive audience to listen or compels other students to participate."

The separation of church and state as applied to public schools has been an ongoing issue for over half a century, beginning with the 1948 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in McCollum v. Board of Education District 71, where the Court found that Champaign schools were violating the Establishment clause. The 1962 Engel v. Vitale, often cited as the case that "officially" banned prayer from schools, was further cemented in 1992 with Lee v. Weisman, where the Court found that inviting a clergy for invocations and benedictions at a graduation ceremony violates the First Amendment.

Clark's statement was a reflection on these rulings. 

'"Because graduation is an official, school-sponsored event, the law would prohibit incorporating prayer or worship into the schedule of events, the statement goes on to say. "We respect the diverse beliefs our students and their families hold, and we strive to educate all such students in compliance with the law."

Christopher Superintendent Richard Towers said his district follows similar guidelines regarding graduation speeches.

"The speeches are submitted to the guidance counselor and principals prior to graduation," he said.  "They work with the student to help draft a speech that everyone agrees is appropriate for the graduation setting."

The decision to disallow Seth's speech at the graduation ceremony drew criticism from one Akin resident, Ricky Karroll. 

Karroll, who said he is friends with Seth's parents, offered his property across the street from the school as a venue for Seth and two of his classmates to deliver his speech after the official ceremony. 

"He (Seth) got up and said at graduation they were told they were not allowed to give their speeches and would be giving them across the street after (the ceremony)," Karroll said.

Karroll said about "50 or 60 people came to hear" the speeches. He also said that he had not intended to attend the graduation until he heard about the controversy about an hour before.

"I told them you can go across to the house over there," he said. "I think he has the right to give his opinion and he wanted to do a prayer, and last time I check we are still the United States of America and it's the right to freedom of speech."

Karroll admitted that while he is religious, he doesn't "go to church as often as I should," referring to the Akin Baptist Church. He did say he attends "cowboy church" frequently while competing in horse shows.  He also said that he felt strongly about getting involved because he shares the same religious beliefs as Seth.

Even though Karroll said he feels "everybody has the right to say their opinion," he admitted he "probably wouldn't have offered" to host a student with a different belief system, such as a Muslim, to share his property.

"I'm not prejudiced," he said, "but they (a Muslim) have the right to say what they want. That's not my faith so I probably wouldn't have offered it."

Karroll said he believes that that "if the school had told a Muslim they couldn't do that, somebody like the board or the ACLU would have been jumping down their (the school) throat. Our money says 'In God We Trust.' Are we going to stop using that money?"

He said that his offer gave the kids the option to speak.

"I had control of that situation," he said.

The newspaper was unable to reach Seth's parents for a comment.

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