Read Amsterdam High School salutatorian Rebekah Izzo's profile in The Gazette's special Class of 2014 section at dailygazette.com.
AMSTERDAM The typical high school graduation speech is equal parts memories of the past and hopes for the future. So when Amsterdam High School salutatorian Rebekah Izzo turned in her remarks to school officials, red flags were quickly raised.
Izzo, a young woman who has strong Christian beliefs, included a verse from the Bible and some strong religious rhetoric in her original speech that caught the eye of the school’s principal, David Ziskin.
“Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man,” reads the Biblical verse. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
The school reviews all graduation speeches before allowing students to read them, and Izzo said officials forced her to remove parts of her speech in which she shared personal religious messages with both her fellow students and the audience at graduation.
“Instead of saying ‘Put your trust in God,’ they wanted me to say something like ‘I put my trust in God,’ ” she said.
The 18-year old Amsterdam resident began her speech, which is posted on YouTube, by saying: “This is not my original speech . . . because it contained a personal message to each individual here of what God can do in your own life.”
She was disappointed she had to remove those parts of her speech.
“I worked really hard to become the salutatorian and to reach that stage,” she said.
After looking at the speech, Ziskin decided to turn it over to Greater Amsterdam School District Superintendent Thomas Perillo, according to Perillo. Ziskin could not be reached for comment.
Perillo and school district attorneys poured over the language in the speech extensively — Perillo said they wanted to make sure the speech could not be considered proselytizing and in no way favored one religion over another.
“It is the district’s responsibility to make sure a speech at graduation does not favor one religion,” Perillo said.
He concluded the Bible verse and a few other parts of the speech were indeed proselytizing and told Izzo to take them out.
Melanie Trimble, Capital Region chapter director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, suspected the district actually made Izzo remove the verse because it cannot appear to be endorsing her religious viewpoints.
“It is clear to me, after watching the speech, these were her own views and that the district did not want to appear as if they are endorsing them,” Trimble said.
Perillo said students at the high school still have broad freedom of speech, but they cannot use a public gathering such as a graduation to advocate their personal religious beliefs.
Izzo, however, said she thinks the district was being “nitpicky.”
“The fact that parts of my speech were removed shows the direction our country is headed in,” she said. “We are losing the rights to voice our opinions, and our rights are diminishing every day. People should be able to decide whether they want to believe in what I am saying or not.”
She equated the school district’s decision to remove parts of her speech to the its mandatory curriculum, which, she said, forced her to sit in science classes where the theory of evolution was taught and the idea that Adam and Eve were the first humans to walk the Earth was refuted.
“I had to sit through those classes, even though I didn’t want to,” she said. “After taking the classes, I had to make up my mind and decide what to believe in.”
As for Izzo’s plans after high school, she will attend the Belanger School of Nursing in Schenectady this fall and plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing while specializing in maternity care or pediatrics.
“I am really excited to begin the next phase of my life and to continue to speak out for what I believe in,” Izzo said.