Tucked away from the sun-washed Los Angeles sky, on a low floor at Biola University, 15 college freshmen sit in desks arranged in a circle. Though the semester is less than two weeks old, the students yak as if they've known each other for years-about homework, swing dancing, and that ubiquitous campus complaint: lack of sleep. Within a few minutes, the instructor arrives, buttoned-down and wearing a tie, and soon settles into a discussion of Homer's Odyssey.
One student, a young lady wearing black capris, a periwinkle T-shirt, and a tousled mane of chestnut hair, three months ago embarked unexpectedly on an odyssey of her own.
In June, a decision to stand up for her First Amendment right to religious speech launched Brittany McComb on an abrupt tour of the media jungle, a fast-paced jaunt through the world of print reporters and television talking heads. McComb is the Henderson, Nev., high-school valedictorian who delivered the commencement speech she had prepared instead of the censored version from which school officials had redacted the name of Jesus Christ.
Afterward, McComb was roundly criticized for attempting to "evangelize" a captive audience. But she told reporters she had simply wanted to share with her Foothill High School classmates the "secret" of her success. It turns out there's more to the story: Not only was her faith in Christ the "secret," but success itself had once been both her master and her enemy. And the message she tried to deliver in her valedictory speech was the same one she'd been sharing for two years with classmates fighting similar coming-of-age battles with identity and self-worth.
In the wake of her graduation speech, editorialists accused McComb of simply wanting attention, of being selfish. Instead, said her mother, Connie McComb, Brittany was doing the opposite: "She knew so many kids were struggling with those same feelings of inadequacy that she had had, and she had shared with them before what worked for her. For her to get up on graduation day and say anything else, to not share that hope with her classmates, wouldn't have made sense."
To recap the controversy: McComb earned top honors in her graduating class and penned a valedictory speech that focused on her personal keys to success. God through Christ, she wrote, had filled a yearning in her heart that success couldn't. But school officials, citing separation of church and state, struck the name of Christ from the text, as well as a number of Scripture references. They told McComb that if she tried to deliver her own version, they would switch off her microphone.
McComb's parents tried to communicate with school attorneys to discuss options but met only silence, according to a lawsuit filed July 12 in the U.S. District Court of Nevada by the Rutherford Institute, a religious liberty firm in Virginia. In the run-up to graduation day, McComb alleges, Foothill assistant principal Roy Thompson periodically confronted her in the school hallways, pressuring her for a decision: Would she deliver the school's version of her speech or her own?
On the last such occasion, McComb, frustrated and running out of time, agreed to give the state-approved speech. But that did not end her private anguish. "They were going to let me talk about God, but the few references they took out were about Christ," she told WORLD. "That's how God's love was manifested to me, and if I wasn't going to talk about Christ, the whole speech was pointless."
McComb's best friend Keri Coon, 18, who was student body president at the time, walked with her through the struggle. The two lived three minutes apart and had been spend-the-night friends since the sixth grade. "There were countless times when Brittany was in tears because she was so confused about what to do," Coon said.
In the end, McComb stepped up to the microphone and gave her own speech, proceeding all the way to the first redaction: "God's love is so great that He gave His only son up . . ."
The microphone went dead. She finished the sentence without amplification: ". . . to an excruciating death on a cross so His blood would cover all our shortcomings and provide for us a way to heaven in accepting this grace."
Few news accounts noted that when she began speaking about Christ, many students and parents began to cheer. And when the mike died, a chant was born, growing louder as the crowd joined in: "Let her speak! Let her speak! Let her speak!" Perhaps the audience knew what officials did not: that McComb had been speaking for years about Christ rescuing her from her taskmaster, success.
The daughter of a homemaker and a commercial construction contractor, McComb professed faith in Christ at age 7. She had always been bright and energetic, her mom Connie told WORLD, but soon she became driven. "Brittany was always a real achiever," Mrs. McComb said. "She always strived hard for success."
For example, she excelled in music and made the National Swim Team, consistently placing in the top 10 percent in the country. "I thought that was insignificant because I didn't place first, second, or third," McComb said.
In school, she aced all her classes but was frustrated when she was not invited to an important math competition. When she placed second in a photo competition, "that wasn't good enough," said McComb, who is majoring in journalism at Biola. She grew to dislike swimming but kept doing it because she was concerned about her body image and wanted to keep her weight down. "Anything I did, even if I didn't like doing it, I would do it passionately because I was so competitive. I was a perfectionist. I was frustrated when I did not do everything perfectly right."
McComb talked through the problem with her parents and Christian friends, and even sought out a Christian counselor. Still, she struggled with who she was as a human being. If she gave up striving, if she weren't known for her achievements, who was she?
Fulfillment eluded her. "Nothing the world offered could give Brittany feelings of success," Connie McComb said. "She began struggling with depression, never feeling adequate, striving but always falling short of the mark. She was dying inside."
Then one day in her sophomore year, she says she "let Him take over every aspect of my life and decided that only by doing His will would I be successful." Supported by her parents, McComb quit swimming. "The moment I quit, a huge burden lifted off my shoulders," she said. "Quitting swimming marked the time I stopped trying to be perfect on my own merit." Instead, she relied on the merit of Christ.
That was the critical point she hoped to make in her graduation speech. After the speech, commentators were quick to note that McComb had created a forum for herself by "breaking the rules." Foothill High School teacher Karen Vaughn also weighed in with a letter to the editor in which she wrote that since McComb agreed to give the school's version of the speech, she had broken a "promise" when she didn't; this amounted to "lying" and "dishonorable" behavior.
On this point, McComb bristles: "I was standing up for what I believe in," she told WORLD. "I am not a rebel. I have never been a rebel. I have always been one to uphold the standards of the school, to respect my elders, to respect authority. But when you tell me I can't be who I am, that's when I have to take a stand."
Media attention has cycled down since June. But the lawsuit against the district is moving ahead. McCombs' complaint demands a jury trial and alleges five causes of action including violations of her rights to free speech, equal protection, and free exercise of religion. Rutherford Institute chief counsel John Whitehead said the suit will challenge head-on a troubling development in First Amendment jurisprudence known as "government speech." The doctrine, now more frequently in use by the courts, holds that if speech occurs on government property, it is not constitutionally protected.
With the suit likely to drag on for years, McComb said it is already affecting her future. As an aspiring journalist, she said she values her experience this summer as an interviewee: "I'm getting more excited, feeling like God really is calling me. I realize that I can make a difference."
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