North Carolina Public School Reins In Proselytizing After ‘Cowboy’ Preacher’s Sermon

An appearance by a “cowboy” evangelist at a North Carolina public high school graduation ceremony has sparked controversy, with school officials vowing to make certain that preaching does not occur at future events.

The Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart was invited by students to speak during graduation ceremonies at Nantahala School in Topton, N.C., in June. During the event, Stewart delivered a sermon and warned students about the machinations of Satan. He even wrapped a student volunteer in ropes to demonstrate the hold of the devil.

Initially, Superintendent Dan Brigman defended the presentation, telling the Smoky Mountain News, “It wasn’t a revival, but he had some strong encouraging words for the kids to make good decisions.”

But after receiving letters from Americans United and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Brigman changed course. In its letter, Americans United noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that public schools may not invite clergy to deliver prayers during graduation ceremonies or coerce students to take part in religion as the price of attending the event.

“That Reverend Stewart was selected as a graduation speaker by senior class students does not cure the constitutional violation,” wrote AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. Khan noted that in a 2000 case, “the Supreme Court held that public schools may not allow students to decide whether a prayer will be presented at athletic events because the prayers would still have ‘the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship, and such prayers are still school-endorsed by virtue of being authorized by official policy and being presented at an official school event.”

Brigman told the News that the district has a policy in place to ensure that students aren’t exposed to religion against their will. He said in this instance, the process broke down after Nantahala School Principal Robbie Newton died of cancer before the end of the school year. In the leadership void, no one else stepped in to implement the policy.

In an Aug. 4 letter to Americans United, Brigman reiterated these points.

“[W]e do employ a process to look into the intended content of speakers,” Brigman wrote. “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.”

Brigman added, “We agree to and will ensure that future graduation speakers refrain from religious speech.”