A high school valedictorian in Vermont was forbidden by school administers from delivering nearly half of his graduation speech in which he discussed how Jesus had changed his life.
"I was just sharing a story about my life and how it was changed," said Kyle Gearwar, the valedictorian at Fair Haven Union High School. "And as an American and as a valedictorian I felt that I should have been able to do that."
Gearwar, 18, said he had submitted his speech to the principal and the following day he was summoned to the office.
"They told me my speech was going to be a problem - that the school wouldn't allow me to deliver the speech and they would prevent me from giving the speech if it came down to it," Gearwar told Fox News Radio.
He said the principal told him to remove anything that "had to do with religion, God, talking about how He can help you. The thing that actually changed me, I couldn't talk about."
"You can burn a flag but we're not able to speak about God," he said. "I just don't agree with that."
Brett Blanchard, the principal at Fair Haven Union High School, defended the censorship and said public school must be careful about allowing some to talk about their religion at a school-sanctioned event.
"We are absolutely strong supporters of free speech," Blanchard told Fox News Radio. "The federal law limits the kind of religious speech that's permitted at a commencement at a public high school."
The issue was whether Gearwar's speech was a personal testimony of how Jesus Christ changed his life - or if it was an act of proselytizing.
Among the many sentences that the school took offense to was this passage from Gearwar's speech:
"I have peace and can finally enjoy every moment God has given me, good or bad. I wouldn't be standing before you without the blessings God has given me through my tough situations. He is the reason I am the man I am today, made new through Jesus death on the cross."
During the graduation ceremony, several audience members encouraged Gearwar to read the censored and redacted portions of his speech. The Christian teenager declined to do so, explaining that he had given his word to the principal and the assistant principal that he would abide by their decision.
"You're supposed to respect your authority," he said. "Even in the Bible it says you should respect the authorities of the land. I wasn't going to disappoint these men."
That decision struck a chord with Blanchard.
"He stuck to his word and his agreement," Blanchard said. "I think it speaks highly."
Gearwar said he has nothing but respect for Blanchard and the school's assistant principal.
"They were very nice and they are awesome people and they were just doing what they were told to do," he said.
The censorship of Gearwar's speech was also the subject of an editorial by the Burlington Free Press, chastising school administrators for "playing it safe."
"The school's decision says much about how uncomfortable we all have become about discussing religion publicly," the newspaper wrote. "We should be able to listen to others talk about their faith - those different from our own - without feeling threatened. Instead we live in a sad time when the risk of offending someone also carries the risk of being sued."
Gearwar, who will be attending the University of Connecticut, said he wrote the speech "for God's glory" and said he's been surprised by the attention it's gotten.
Principal Blanchard said he's worried "the public dialogue will be misconstrued."
"I think it is a very valid topic to discuss and I'm hoping it doesn't become misconstrued or simplified," he said. "I don't think it's a simple issue."
Regardless, the Burlington Free Press summed up their take on the controversy by crediting Gearwar.
"If anything is clear, it is that Kyle Gearwar, valedictorian of the Fair Haven Union High School class of 2011, conducted himself with honor and principle."
Kyle Gearwar's Graduation Speech
Good Evening parents, graduates, faculty and staff, administrators, families and students of Fair Haven Union High School. Thank you for coming tonight to witness this truly awesome event. I thought I would begin this speech with a little formality, but trust me I will not speak like this for the whole five minutes.
I would just like to take a moment to recognize this class of graduates. This is one of the most intelligent and competitive classes this school has ever witnessed graduate. We have students going into prestigious colleges and occupations, athletes that are at the top of their games and have won state recognition, all state band musicians, poetry wizards, and many others who succeed and excel in various activities. I can't even describe the potential of this group of individuals. It is impossible to imagine what each student will accomplish and we can look forward to these people leading and becoming the backbone of this country. This is one of the greatest classes that Fair Haven has produced and I am proud to be, not only their Valedictorian but also their classmate.
I would like to say my thank yous now. I would like to begin by thanking this school and the faculty, staff and administration. It has been a great four years and I thank you for preparing me for college and the life ahead of me. Each of you has left your mark on me and I will forever remember what you have taught me academically and all the life lessons. I would also like to thank Mr. Richard Luzer. I spent probably half my high school career in that library with you and it was well worth the time and discussion. You are a wise man Mr. Luzer and Fair haven is lucky to have you.
Next I want to thank my church and Youth Group, Pastor Rob and Pastor Dan, my youth leaders Mr. Lew and Mrs. Ronna, Mike Hall and all those that have mentored me for the last ten years of my life. The guidance you have given me in scripture is phenomenal and the mentoring and love you have shown me can not be reciprocated. Everything you do is for God and for others and I can not thank you enough. And to my Youth Group I want to say that you are my core. I look forward every week to seeing you all and though we go through difficult times, they will always get better eventually.
Finally I would like to thank my mom and dad and brother. I am not just saying this, I mean it with the upmost respect and love, you are the greatest parents and family I could ever ask for. I guess I can be a little forgetful but you've always been there to help me and raise me to be successful and I hope I have made you proud. Mom, thank you for all the hard work you've put into my post-secondary school education and I am truly thankful for the things you've done so I'm ready for college. Thanks for all the free animal mounts as well. I hope you let me take some to put in my dorm room. Dad, thank you for trusting me even when you have no reason too. I am so grateful that I have a father with so much intelligence and knowledge. Trav, you are an awesome brother and probably one of my best friends as well. I wish you the best of luck in the rest of your high school career and onward. I want to thank all my family members here tonight as well for everything you have done to make my life enjoyable to live.
I come before you tonight, ill prepared. I have spent the last week diligently praying and writing my speech for you tonight. I sought the message that would deliver a feeling of sorrow, but end with great victory. Sadly the latter part is not the case. My original speech has been cut, redone, and eventually trashed because of my references to the Bible, Jesus, and a better life. Today my letter to you was revised by some lawyers and attorneys who crossed out the concluding half of my speech. They said that the school can not endorse or allow me to speak about religion and how it has changed my life. I have dealt with the minor changes to my story that they have proposed, but in the end I could not throw it out. It saddens me that it had to come to this and I do not wish to read it on these circumstances because I know that Mr. Blanchard, Mr. Doucette and the school are at the mercy of the law if I follow through on this. It saddens me even more that the founding fathers created the first amendment, but today Congress has changed it to exclude those that they do not want to speak and defiled the principles on which this country was built on. I would also like to add that I am not trying to cause a problem or direct attention to myself, but I have always dreamed of speaking about God in front of my school as the Valedictorian. This was the message God gave to me and I am not allowed to share it with you even though it my testimony, the most important change my life has ever experienced, and the one thing that I stand for no matter what.
Today my valedictorian speech remains unfinished. I am submitting to those who have authority over me by not reading the half of my speech that has caused issues. I respect the administration for the decisions they have made and thank them anyways for the opportunity to speak.
Editor's Note: This is the portion of Kyle's speech that was censored.
I thank God for everything He has done for me and the strength He has given me to resist the urge to defy the command the school has given me. Again thank you for coming tonight and Congratulations to the 2011 Fair Haven Union High School Graduates.
Now I would like to share a story, actually the testimony of my life, to show you what I have gone through and how I got here. Some of you may be offended with this story but this is what I feel God has laid on my heart and is a message this school needs to hear. I have grown up a in a Christian home all my life thanks to my amazing parents, but as many of these people can vouch for, I do not always act like I am Born Again. Thankfully, Jesus said I am not perfect and God forgives me for every sin I commit. My testimony is this. For the last few weeks I was lost in anger and depression. I kept it hidden quite well from most though. I was so burdened with grief and angst that I couldn't focus on my life or those around me. Finally it all broke loose and I couldn't contain myself any longer. I lashed out in anger at some of my best friends and cried for hours on end. I was so broken that I call a friend and mentor of mine who went through some of the same issues as I have. I begged him to get rid of this hate I had for myself and those that had done me wrong. He reminded me of the song that includes these words, "Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his beautiful face, and the cares of this world will grow strangely dim." The following day I picked up a book by a pastor out of Texas. He talks about letting go of the past and looking for the future God has for those who seek him. The reason I acted the way I have for so long was because I harbored this extreme dislike for myself and held onto the things people have said and done to me. But as soon as I gave this to God and let him fight my battles my entire life has changed. I don't dwell on the past. I have peace and can finally enjoy every moment God has given me, good or bad. I wouldn't be standing before you without the blessings God has given me through my tough situations. He is the reason I am the man I am today, made new through Jesus death on the cross.
I have my own unique issues and problems, but they can include others like substance abuse, relationship problems, anger, pride, or depression. The way to escape this is through submitting to God. I can't get through all my difficulties in my own strength, but with God I can, and there are many people in this world whose lives have changed because of Him. Jeremiah 29:11 says "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, they are plans for good and not for evil, to give you a hope and a future." I needed to let go of the things that I wasn't proud of and give my life to the One who created me. God knew me before I was born and wanted a relationship with me from that very day. And trust me it was well worth the effort to submit to God and not let the world get the best of me.
Now I can live in freedom from sin. Now I can look at each new day with a smile. Now I can face each trouble and problem with a glad heart. Now I can live with God and not try to barely survive without Him. Amen.
Again thank you for coming tonight and Congratulations to the 2011 Fair Haven Union High School Graduates.