School Reverses Ban on Use of 'God' at Graduation Ceremony

By Marc Morano | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

( - A Wisconsin public high school student will be allowed to sing a song referring to "God" at her graduation ceremony after all.

The student, 18-year-old Rachel Honer, was forced to file a lawsuit two weeks ago objecting to the school's demand that she substitute the words "He," "Him" or "His" instead of "God" in the Christian-themed song.

"I think it's wonderful. I am so excited that I am able to do this song. All I wanted to do was sing this song," Honer told

School officials at Winneconne High School in Winnebago County, Wis., originally told Honer that she would need to substitute the words "He," "Him" or "His" for the three lyric references to the word "God" if she sang her chosen song at her graduation ceremony on June 8.

"I was really shocked. I never thought this would ever happen to me, especially in America," Honer said.

With the aid of the Virginia-based civil liberties organization, the Rutherford Institute, Honer filed suit in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee, arguing that the censorship of her graduation performance violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

After the legal filing and intense media attention, school officials reconsidered their stance and announced late last week that Honer could sing the complete song lyrics and use the word "God" after all, but she will still not be allowed to give a spoken introduction that mentions God. The school will identify Honer in the program as a graduation performer, not a graduation speaker.

'I was just shocked'

Honer was one of three students selected to speak at the graduation by a committee of school faculty members. Honer asked to sing instead of speak and, after she provided the lyrics of the Christian song "He's Always Been Faithful" by Sara Groves, the faculty committee told Honer she could only perform the song if the three references to God were substituted with "He," "Him" and "His."

The school's principal, Jim Smasal, told Honer that the word "God" might offend some of the audience members and violate the so-called "separation of church and state," according to the lawsuit.

Honer would not agree to the school's request because she believed eliminating the word "God" from the lyrics would compromise her faith and her legal rights.

"I was aware of my First Amendment rights, and I was just shocked that [the school] wanted to take those rights away from me," Honer said.

Honer believes the school only reversed its position on the song because of the "combination of the lawsuit and the media attention."

Honer has been pleased with her fellow students' reaction to the controversy.

"They are very supportive. It was my first day back today (Monday) since all the media attention came, and I just had kids come up to me and say, 'Hey, congratulations,' 'Keep at it' and everything, so it's been great," Honer said.

School district Superintendent Robert Reinke did not return a phone call for this article.

'A great victory for free speech'

"This is a great victory for free speech and freedom of religion," said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute. The lawsuit filed by the institute has now been dropped.

"We are hopeful that school districts around the country will cease discriminating against religious students and ensure that they are treated equally and on the same basis as others," Whitehead said

Whitehead added that situations similar to Honer's occur frequently throughout school systems in the United States.

"I don't think it's so much anti-God. There is this idea that we can't offend anybody now. If we offend anybody, we have to erase it, we have to change history, we can't read Mark Twain; whatever it might be," Whitehead explained.

Whitehead blames "political correctness."

"That whole idea of political correctness, which kind of arose in the 1990s, has gotten entrenched in the bureaucracy of our public schools," he added.

Whitehead believes that many school systems want to avoid the use of the word "God" simply to avoid offending people.

"'God' has become the 'g-word' now, like it's the 'n-word' - it's almost equated to that," Whitehead said.

"The word 'God' in these ceremonies has become very similar to these other taboo words," he added.

Honer, who is planning to attend the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh next year, said her experience with the school has served as a cultural eye-opener about the current state of the U.S.

"It's actually really sad. It just goes to show that the morals and integrity of this country are just going down," Honer said.

E-mail a news tip to Marc Morano.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.