Religion

Kansas principal will stop telling graduates that faith and Jesus lead to success

The Great Bend school district said that Principal Tim Friess' graduation speech that included references to God, Jesus and faith violated district policies.
The Great Bend school district said that Principal Tim Friess' graduation speech that included references to God, Jesus and faith violated district policies. AP Photo

A high school principal in central Kansas has agreed to stop telling graduates that faith and Jesus will lead them to success.

A letter from the Great Bend school district to the Freedom From Religion Foundation said that Principal Tim Friess' comments at the May 20 graduation violated the district's policies.

"If you have a spare tire called Faith, and, most importantly, a driver called Jesus, you will make it to a place called Success," Friess told students and parents at the Great Bend High School graduation, the Foundation said.

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Tim Friess Courtesy Photo Great Bend USD 428

The Foundation's letter also said Friess opened his speech with "thank God for the beautiful day that He has blessed us with," and concluded his remarks with "may God bless each of you."

The letter was written by Chris Line, the Foundation's Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow. He provided The Eagle with copies of the Foundation's May 23 letter and the school district's response in a June 8 letter.

The Foundation, which is based in Wisconsin, said in its letter that public school teachers and administrators may not promote religion to students. District employees promoting their personal religious beliefs to students would be a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the letter states.

"High school graduations and other school-sponsored events must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students," the Foundation's letter said.

It cited several Supreme Court decisions and quoted Justice William J. Brennan's majority opinion in the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard.

"Families entrust public schools with the education of their children," Brennan wrote, "but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family."

The Foundation asked the school district for a written response outlining the steps it will take "to remedy this constitutional violation and ensure that future school-sponsored events do not include religious promotion."

Great Bend attorney Mark A. Rondeau said in the district's response that Superintendent Khris Thexton spoke with Friess, and the principal "agreed that his comments were not in accordance with the policies and assured the superintendent that they would not happen again."

Thexton did not return a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.

The district response quoted several policies that Rondeau said are intended to prohibit unconstitutional religious speech. The policies include prohibitions against district employees promoting or disparaging any religious belief or non-belief, and also state that school ceremonies — including graduations — must be secular.

The Foundation's letter said that religious remarks at the graduation ceremony "alienates the 38 percent of younger Americans who are not religious," citing a 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute.

The district's website states that Friess has been a public school teacher and administrator in Great Bend for 30 years, spending the last six years as the high school principal.

Friess has used the same analogy in past graduation ceremonies, the Great Bend Tribune reported.

Line, the legal fellow, told The Eagle that he could not provide any information on who made the complaint to the Foundation.

He said the Foundation considers the district's response to be "satisfactory," and "we trust that this violation has been resolved and will not occur again in the future."

Friess' full analogy, as quoted in the Foundation's letter, reads:

"I want to end by reading ... from an unknown author: 'The road to Success is not straight. There is a curb called Failure, a loop called Confusion; speed bumps called Friends; red lights called Enemies; and caution lights called Family. You will have flat tires called job. But, if you have a spare tire called Faith, and, most importantly, a driver called Jesus, you will make it to a place called Success!'"

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