MCDONOUGH COUNTY, IL (WGEM/CNN) – An Illinois valedictorian is considering legal action against his high school after he says administrators told him to remove references to his Christian faith from his graduation speech.
Sam Blackledge, the valedictorian at West Prairie High School in Sciota, IL, says he turned in a copy of his speech, which contained several references to God and Jesus, Saturday afternoon.
“The most important thing in your life is to find… intimacy with God,” Blackledge wrote. “As you search for goodness, justice, love and forgiveness, know that only God is big enough to provide that for you.”
Ten minutes before his graduation ceremony, Blackledge says school administrators told him to remove the parts of the speech mentioning God and that he wasn’t allowed to talk about his faith.
Blackledge says he was shocked.
"There's always people out there that will go against what I have to say, and nobody always agrees, but I believe this is the truth. It's impacted my life, and I wanted to share the hope of Christ with others,” he said.
The valedictorian is now being represented by lawyer Jeremy Dys with the non-profit legal organization First Liberty Institute.
Dys says while the school may have thought they were supporting the Constitution by excluding faith elements from the speech, that’s not the case.
"They actually violated the Constitution. They'd do well to remember, as 'Tinker v. Des Moines,' the case in 1969, reminds us, that students do not shed their constitutional rights when they walk through the schoolhouse gates,” Dys said.
Dys says speeches like Blackledge’s are protected by federal law.
"The Department of Education, by the way, puts out guidelines on this every single year, and it's very clear in those guidelines that student speeches like Sam's are protected by the First Amendment,” he said.
Through all of this, Blackledge says he’s experienced strong community support.
"Even people I don't know and never have seen before, they come up to me and ask me if I'm the kid that this happened to. Then, they say I'm standing behind you, and I really appreciate all the support,” he said.
Blackledge says the superintendent reached out to him, and they have a meeting set for Wednesday.
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