Whoa There, Cowboy!: N.C. School Promises To Rein In Graduation Sermonizing

Good news from Macon County, N.C.!

A public school system there has agreed that it made a mistake in allowing a controversial preacher to speak at Nantahala School’s graduation ceremony in June.

At the commencement, the Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart, pastor of a small Baptist church in Robbinsville, delivered a sermon to the nine graduating seniors. He brought a volunteer on stage, bound the person with a rope and then placed a bag over the volunteer’s head. The demonstration served to warn students about the machinations of Satan and included references to the Bible.

“The devil is out to destroy you, to tie you up,” said Stewart, according to an article in the Andrews Journal. “These people who took drugs, overdosed and died didn’t mean to. They got tied up.”

After learning about Stewart’s graduation sermon, Americans United sent a letter on July 25 to Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman and Nantahala School Principal James Bryan. In the missive, AU reminded school officials that delivering prayers or proselytizing speeches as part of a graduation ceremony violates the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.

At first, Brigman defended the presentation. He told the Smoky Mountain News, “It wasn’t a revival, but he had some strong encouraging words for the kids to make good decisions.”

In addition, in an Aug. 4 letter responding to Americans United, Brigman wrote:

“[W]e do employ a process to look in to the intended content of speakers. In some circumstances (including the Nantahala graduation ceremony), we allow students to select speakers. They are then to refer their choice to their principal; each principal is then to review that choice and determine whether it is appropriate. In this case, as you may be aware, tragic circumstances prevented a proper vetting through this process.”

Both Americans Untied and the Freedom from Religion Foundation have urged the school to do a better job of implementing this policy – and Brigman says he plans to.

He said in the future, the school will do its best to ensure that graduation speakers refrain from religious speech. This year was an exception, he asserted, because the speaker-selection process broke down after a principal died before the school year ended.

We’re pleased with the superintendent’s commitment. The Americans United Legal Departments tries to resolve these types of situations amicably, with litigation only as the last resort. We’re always glad when we learn school and government officials are receptive to making improvements and changes.

This is a happy ending for all.