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District followed guidelines in speech decision

Friday, July 04, 2014 - Updated: 9:56 AM


A New York state School Board Association spokesman said Wednesday the Greater Amsterdam School District followed proper procedure in its decision to ask high school salutatorian Rebekah Izzo to rewrite her graduation speech.

"Based on the establishment clause, they followed procedure," spokesman Al Marlin said.

At the commencement ceremony Saturday, Izzo announced that the district forced her to revise her original speech, which included scripture and contained a personal message for her classmates about what God can do for their lives.

"The district did require me to change it saying they felt it violated the Establishment Clause and so forth," Izzo said Thursday.

According to school district attorney William Mycek, the speech did violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

Mycek said the Establishment Clause prohibits all government bodies from endorsing a religion. He said public school districts are a political subdivision of the state, and in this circumstance, the federal law applies to the district.

According to the First Amendment Center, the Establishment Clause "separates church from state, but not religion from politics or public life. Individual citizens are free to bring their religious convictions into the public arena. But the government is prohibited from favoring one religious view over another or even favoring religion over non-religion."

"The ceremony was a school sponsored event and the speakers, which we have some control over, are prohibited to espouse their religious views," Mycek said.

Izzo said high school principal David Ziskin approached her on June 26 about changing her original speech.

She said she was disappointed because she worked so hard to get to the position where she could present a salutatory speech on her graduation day.

"If people did not like what I had to say they could have left or disregarded it the second they heard it," Izzo said. "I sat through four years of lectures and theories that I didn't agree with per se, but it was my decision to sit through them or believe them."

However, Izzo said not being allowed to read the speech has afforded her a greater opportunity to talk about God than if she had just read what she originally wrote.

Superintendent Thomas Perillo said the high school administration, including Ziskin, is in charge of reviewing all the speeches before commencement.

Ziskin approached Perillo when he discovered the religious nature of Izzo's message.

Perillo said they immediately sought the advice of the school district's attorneys.

"We wanted to make sure her speech was not viewed as proselytizing," Perillo said.

Mycek said he was away on vacation at that time, and the district approached the Albany-based firm Girvin and Ferlazzo to review Izzo's speech.

Izzo's speech was then transferred to Mycek for a second opinion.

Mycek refused to disclose the specific lines in the speech he advised the district to omit. He only said it was in violation of the clause.

Perillo said Izzo was asked to remove a section of New Testament scripture and other lines the district said promoted her religious beliefs.

He said, specifically, rehearsing the scripture could come across as a way to convert others to her religion.

"We wanted to be sure to respect her right to free speech, while at the same time protecting the rights to all of our students, really," Perillo said.

Perillo said he also approached the state Education Department and officials confirmed it was the district's responsibility to not promote or favor one religion over another.

State Ed spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie said decisions by the school district may be appealed to the commissioner of education. And because the commissioner acts like a judge in these appeals, the department could not comment on the matter.

Perillo said, to his knowledge, the district has not in the past asked a student to revise a speech based on their religious references.

Izzo said she did not think the request was a personal attack against her, but more of a fact that religion is a lost practice in school districts today.

"God in public schools is very rare these days," she said. "People are afraid to speak out for what they believe in. Taking God totally out of this and looking at it through a constitutional lens, I feel I did have the right to say what I wanted to say because I was not forcing or establishing a particular religion in any way but simply trying to express a hope found in God and what God did for me."

Izzo said she is thankful for the support she has received from the Amsterdam community, and has even garnered some national support.

"It's really amazing to see how God works. I give all the glory and praise to Him and hope that this is just the start of revival in Amsterdam," she said.

Perillo said the district has received no backlash as a result of its decision and Izzo seemed comfortable reading her edited speech at graduation.

"Although we respect Rebekah's personal views, the district is bound by state and federal laws," Perillo said.


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