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What a 'Clergy Member' Said During This Graduation Speech Had Atheists Up in Arms — and Now They're Claiming Victory


"And I will be praying for you that God will continue to bless you, watch over you and keep you as you work to prove you continually are worth your salt."

An atheist group is claiming victory after a charter school reportedly agreed with its demands to remove any "religious elements" from future graduation ceremonies following a complaint over the contents of this year's commencement event.

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The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, a secular legal firm, announced in a press release Tuesday that the Hope Academy Charter School in Yucca Valley, California, will now ensure "that its graduations are secular."

The debate began when an unnamed citizen complained over this year's ceremony, which reportedly included a "Christian clergy member" delivering a "five minute sermon."

The legal center subsequently sent a letter to the school — part of the Morongo Unified School District — in June and demanded that action be taken to prevent similar events from unfolding in the future.

The "sermon" in question was reportedly delivered by Hope Academy board member Ted Smith, who invoked religious sentiments while discussing the history and value of salt during the May 28 ceremony.

The man said to be Smith appeared to be in clergy garb as he spoke and pledged to keep the graduating class in his prayers. The Appignani Humanist Legal Center accused him of deriving parts of his speech from Christian sermon websites.

"And I will be praying for you that God will continue to bless you, watch over you and keep you as you work to prove you continually are worth your salt," he told the students.

Watch the controversial speech below:

By allowing the address, the legal firm said that the school violated the Establishment Clause, the California Constitution and the state's education codes — and demanded that religious elements be stripped from all future ceremonies.

The school agreed with this appeal, according to the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

"We are pleased that the public school has agreed to remove religious elements from its graduation ceremonies in accordance with the state and federal constitutions," Monica Miller, a lawyer with the atheist group, announced in a press release. "By ensuring that its graduations are secular, the school will respect the rights of all students, especially those of minority faiths or no faith at all."

In a separate letter sent to the Morongo Unified School District on August 5, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center said that it would continue to monitor school functions, but that no legal action would be taken at this time.

The letter quoted the school's executive director as saying: "We will be removing the spiritual thought from our future graduation and also focus on not having anything that may be a 'grey' area in terms of spiritual or religious implications at all future events."

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