Big Changes Happening on August 7, 2019.

COUNTDOWN: DAYS HRS MINS SECS

Censored valedictorian gets to speak his truth, after all

Nat Werth has a lot to be proud of in his high school career. Becoming the valedictorian of your class is no easy feat, and with that honor, you get to give an address to your fellow classmates, teachers, assorted school staff and hordes of community members eager to know what 13 years of education has produced in each graduating class.

For Werth, giving that address should have been a highlight — if not the highlight — of his K-12 education. He didn’t get the chance, though. The valedictorian for Sheboygan Area Lutheran High School had his address cancelled by the school’s administration. Werth said in news reports that he talked about being a gay teen in a parochial school in his address, and an excerpt from his speech called into question the validity of the claim of Lutherans, shared by a number of other Christian denominations, that homosexuality is a sin.

“The Bible mentions ‘love’ over 500 times,” he wrote. “I sincerely believe that the next generation of Christians will eradicate homophobia in the church and proclaim God’s love to the LGBT community.”

According to BuzzFeed News, Werth hadn’t totally committed to his address, and he’d turned it in early so that he could work with administrators and was fully prepared to remove any references to being gay. However, instead of saying “Here’s what you need to fix,” it was decided he would not be able to give the speech at all. The class’s salutatorian, however, was still able to give an address.

Mixed into the whole incident are two issues, both involving the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. One is freedom of speech and whether or not Werth’s free speech rights were violated by the administration cancelling his address. The other is freedom of religion and whether the fact that the school is a Lutheran school trumps whether or not Werth can speak about homosexuality in a manner contrary to church teachings.

Under most circumstances, I would say that the freedom of religion argument would win out. Despite my love of free speech, I also respect churches being allowed to practice their faith freely in spite of church leaders referring to some of their parishioners as abominations for being gay. Because parochial schools are usually funded by a church or a group of churches, I would say they have the right to curtail students’ free speech because they’re beholden to parishioners’ dollars.

There’s just one itty-bitty problem. A few years ago, the state expanded its voucher program, which allows students who are not thriving in the public school system to attend private and parochial schools on the public dime. In essence, parochial schools are being subsidized with public funding. That changes things in terms of censoring free speech, as all schools that receive taxpayer dollars should be following the same set of rules.

Sheboygan Lutheran is one of the schools that participates in the voucher program. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the school had an official student count of 167 students, and 47 of those are attending through the voucher program, making up 28.1% of the total student population.

With that bit of knowledge, I believe the school erred in canceling Werth’s speech. Instead of working with Werth on his address and providing a free lesson in cooperation and compromise, the administration decided to wash its hands of the entire manner and changed the lesson to one of inflexibility and bigotry, as it appears Werth was censored simply because he was gay.

If Sheboygan Lutheran wants to curtail free speech, it should no longer participate in the state program and rely on the kindness of its parishioners to spread its ideology on the children it teaches.

It looks like Werth might be getting the last laugh, though. Since the news first broke in the Sheboygan Press, he’s been flooded with support from the community, people across the state and even U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Earlier this month, he was invited to speak the Milwaukee Pride festival and receive the Valor Award, which recognizes a young person in the LGBTQ community who has overcome obstacles and challenges to be who they wish to be.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele announced that he plans to personally pay to fly Werth to New York to take part in the World Pride Parade. Julia Hollister, a pastor at a United Church of Christ in Sheboygan, said she’s been asked by her flock to hear Werth’s words.

Werth’s story wound up with a happy ending. I only wish we knew what his full speech said. No media outlets have run the speech, and Werth didn’t give his address in any other public forums, saying he’s not seeking revenge against the school administration.

I don’t see it as revenge. If he truly wants to be the best person he can be, he should speak his truth; otherwise, the school has won. I see it as speaking with his own voice, which is what all Americans should be able to do.

Lee Pulaski is the city editor for the Shawano Leader. Readers can contact him at lpulaski@newmedia-wi.com.