MEDINA — When Buckeye school board member Tom Petek spoke at last month’s high school graduation ceremony, he was met with applause from the crowd.
But one student is voicing concern about what he considers was a religious message in the speech. The graduate said he has friends who also weren’t happy with the speech, but they weren’t comfortable speaking to the media.
“He said we’d make a lot of important decisions in our life, like finding a spouse and getting a good job, but basically said our most important decision would be to find Jesus,” an 18-year-old graduate said. “The rest of the speech was all about religion and trying to find Jesus.”
The graduate, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid social repercussions against his family, said he was unhappy with Petek’s speech because Petek is on the school board and the graduates were from various religious backgrounds.
“There are Jewish students. There are Islamic students,” said the graduate, who’s agnostic. “There are people from all across the spectrum in my graduating class.”
Petek told The Gazette he didn’t mean to offend anyone, and explained the focus of his speech wasn’t religion — it was hope.
“The premise of the speech was not ‘religion’ in a general sense,” said Petek, whose son graduated at the ceremony. “It was merely a message of hope based on my own personal experience. The opinions and comments that I shared were solely my own, and I clearly stated this throughout my address.”
He said he was trying to be helpful and didn’t feel he crossed any lines.
A video recording of the ceremony broadcast on public television shows that the speech contains references to Jesus Christ and passages from the Bible.
In the recording, Petek commended the graduates and said he could think of only one piece of advice to pass on.
“The best thing I can tell you guys is probably the most important decision I ever made in my life, and I mean this sincerely,” Petek told the class. “The most important decision I ever made in my life wasn’t where to go to college, it wasn’t who to marry… it wasn’t what career to choose.
“The most important decision I ever made was when I gave my life to Jesus Christ.”
Petek told the class that society defines happiness as wealth and success, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
“These things are great to pursue, but they won’t make you happy,” Petek said. “The apostle Paul said, ‘In whatever state I am, therewith to be content.’ Only a life in Christ will bring contentment.”
Petek went on to tell the students that Jesus Christ could help them overcome their hardships.
“Christ never promised us a life of ease or a bed of roses,” he said. “But what he did promise us is that he would always be there for us. The Bible tells us he is ‘a friend who sticks closer than a brother.’ It also says, ‘cast all your cares upon him, for he cares for you.’
“He loves you no matter who you are or whatever mess you’ve made of your life. He even proved it by dying on the cross.”
The graduate said he thought Petek’s speech violated First Amendment separation of church and state, but explained he didn’t want to pursue legal action because he feared the social repercussions.
Chris Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said Petek’s speech crossed a line — but the organization couldn’t sue over it without somebody who was there willing to come forward.
Under separation of church and state, she said, the government is barred from sponsoring particular religions.
“As a member of the school board, I would argue, he is a representative of the government. He cannot take the podium to proselytize,” she said. “It’s an abuse of his position to use that as an opportunity to proselytize his religion to a group of young people.”
Link said it would be different if he was simply a parent and chose to speak on religion on his own.
“The fact that you have a kid graduating doesn’t change the fact that you’re an elected official,” she said. “I’m sure there was an atheist member of the audience who would have loved to have the podium to spread his message, but he can’t because he’s not a member of the school board.”
Brian Williams, superintendent of Buckeye Schools, said he thought the graduates who were upset were blowing the situation out of proportion.
Williams said there’s also a traditional opening prayer before the graduation ceremonies that’s delivered by a student each year, and no one’s ever challenged it.
“I will say Mr. Petek probably shared a little more than he should have,” Williams said, “but I don’t think he crossed any lines or was offensive.”