Some Willard High School seniors are demanding an apology because school superintendent Kent Medlin made Christian references and prayed while giving a commencement speech on May 13 at the JQH Arena in Springfield, Missouri.
"I came there to graduate, not go to church. It kind of ruined the rest of my night," Preston Schaeffer, a senior, told the Springfield News-Leader. "That was the last night of my high school experience and he chose to talk about religion instead of graduation."
Ashlynn Bradley, another senior, recalled the incident:
He asked students to stand up and pray as a Christian, quoting the Bible numerous times throughout. Many students felt extremely ostracized by the situation, when choosing not to pray. Dr. Medlin, the superintendent, even invited students to his office for coffee to discuss "the Lord." This was incredibly inappropriate.
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The four students who contacted the newspaper said there were others who were scared to speak up at the time. The students plan to contact the American Civil Liberties Union and may file a complaint.
"The fact that he put his rights over our rights, it really offended a lot of us," Bradley added.
"If my behavior was offensive to anyone then I am truly sorry," Medlin told the newspaper. "I in no way wanted to offend anybody. That was not my intention."
Medlin recalled that the graduation ceremony was a "beautiful night," and said he was honored to speak to "a great group of graduates."
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Medlin said he used the acronym GUTS, and told the audience: "For me, that S stands for my savior." He also told the newspaper that he asked families and community members to join him while he recited "a blessing" for the students.
According to Medlin, he was surprised when many graduates stood, and added that he did not mean to make people feel excluded.
Bradley told the newspaper that Medlin has recited a "small prayer" during past graduation ceremonies: "We asked him to please refrain from doing so because it makes others uncomfortable."
Medlin, however, denied that he received that request.
Bradley recalled that Medlin started with the "usual words of encouragement," but added that his speech "got more religious" as he continued:
He said you can attribute all your successes to Jesus Christ and we were like "Wow, you cannot say that." It was like testimony. I felt like we were at church. Then he said he'd say a prayer. It was more embarrassing than anything.
I didn't want to compromise my beliefs and stand just to be one with the class. It was ostracizing. I and some fellow students felt pressure. There were stares from the audience. We hope we'll set a precedent in Willard so other students don't have to go through what we went through.
Sophia Spangler, a senior, said many Christians at the graduation ceremony likely felt comfortable with Medlin's speech, but added: "There were a number of individuals who were made uncomfortable. We live in an area of predominantly one faith but that can be isolating to people of other faiths."
Joseph Amundson, another senior, stated: "I was upset by it. I thought it was offensive to anyone who was attending who was not of the Christian faith. I didn't stand because it made me so mad that he did that. I'd be happy if this was never repeated again."
In May 2016, Medlin tweeted a picture of his prayer for the students, adding a caption: "My prayer for the Willard 2016 Graduates. God bless each and every one of you as you reach for your dreams!"