A formal complaint has been filed with the Appleton Area School District, accusing a school board member of violating the separation of church and state. Media Trackers previously reported the controversy surrounding Pastor Alvin Dupree, who was criticized by several school district residents after he made religious references in a commencement address when referencing the tragic suicides of two students who attended the school. Media Trackers Director of Communications Jerry Bader interviewed Reverend Alvin Dupree and the two mothers of the students who took their lives to share their input on the situation.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a complaint with the Appleton school board on Nov 16th, criticizing Dupree’s speech claiming that it was an unconstitutional violation to invoke religious statements during the school’s commencement address in spring of 2017. In his speech the FFRF criticized Durpree as he referenced God and religion when speaking about two suicide victims that attended the school.
In the letter from the FFRF they state they are acting on behalf a district resident who complained about Dupree’s speech. In the letter they described students as “a vulnerable and captive audience” which made them at risk for “religious coercion:”
“We are aware that at least some of Dupree’s religious comments were made in reference to the family of a recently deceased student. Students who have just lost a classmate are uniquely vulnerable to religious coercion, highlighting the importance of the school district remaining religiously neutral when discussing such a sensitive topic.”
In the letter the FFRF also made an open records request for any audio from the commencement speech, and any correspondence Dupree may have had to the Outagamie Republican party, and proof that the district will ensure that Dupree will not promote religion in his capacity as a District representative in the future.
In light of the FFRF letter, Bader interviewed Reverend Dupree and both mothers of the students who took their lives, who expressed support for Dupree. Dupree began by clarifying the allegations surrounding the commencement speech:
“Specifically pertaining to the graduation, I am a pastor, and I just happen to be a school board member. Prior to and when running for the school board, I made it intentional to ensure that I put pastor on the ballot, so that those individuals who saw the ballot knew exactly who they were voting for. As an elected official essentially, I am and by no means, have any intent to try and hide who I am as a person, because they are both one and the same. Nor do I have any intent to press or push my personal religious beliefs or my faith on anyone, nor will I hide that as a personality, it’s part of my DNA.”
At the commencement Dupree had read a letter from the family of Kodye Fassbender, a student who was a victim of suicide, which detailed their gratitude for Dupree’s help and their belief that they were leaning to their faith in during this hard time:
“As a speaker at the high school graduation representing the Appleton Area school board just as a speaker I read this letter to the graduating class of which it said that Kodye’s family is looking to God for strength during this time. There was no intent to try and pray or preach to that graduating class, my daughter was a member of that graduating class, and I simply said they were just leaning to their faith. I also expressed as a person that one would consider successful after twenty years in the marine core, and been a pastor in the community, I also expressed what made me great, or has given me the success that I have, it’s my personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and I told the class in that regard whatever that greatness is for you, you’re going to have to figure that out for yourself, you’re going to have to find that for yourself.”
“Whatever your belief is, if that makes you great don’t hide it and don’t be hushed up about it, lean on it.”
However, some individuals who attended the commencement complained about the religious mentions, and now the FFRF is accusing Dupree of committing a constitutional violation of separation of church and state. Dupree defended his beliefs:
“I can’t pretend to be someone that I’m not, as a twenty year marine you still have the conversation where you bring up the marine core. I am one and of the same and to try to take that particular case law and to try to somehow stretch it beyond what I believe it’s intent is, to say a person can’t speak of his life experience, to me it’s very offensive to try and ask me not to speak of my faith. It’s who I am, I operate even in this community as a pastor and to me its more offensive than to try to tell one who happens to be my ethnicity that your black skin offends me when you show up, somehow you need to cover it up. I think it’s more offensive to ask someone to cover up their faith in Jesus Christ when that is their essence in the core of who they are without trying to pressure people to somehow conform to their faith.”
One of the mothers speaking to Bader, Lisa Fassbender, rejected the suggestion that Dupree’s graduation speech references to her son’s suicide were exploitative.
“It’s an awareness, and we also have to recognize that in difficult times that if your individual way to deal with that is faith that’s the way you deal with that. We were actually very humbled that he chose to honor Kodye in that manner, and to speak of him in a public setting and acknowledge that teens are taking their lives and we have the ability and the necessity to try and fix that and do something about it.”
Dupree also defended against the allegations that the speech was exploitative of the families:
“We’re not going to be bullied by any Freedom of Religion organization or individuals who are going to try and wait five months later to somehow strategically exploit your son because of me mentioning your faith or Erika. That’s exploitative in the definition of the word, to try and make this an issue that simply is not an issue, it’s about saving lives and taking care of not just my children which I have four in the school district, but we have thousands of kids that we as board members in a community of people are holistically looking out for all of the same, no matter what their faith, or no faith, or what their beliefs or their sexual orientations, none of that matters we love them all equally because that’s the Christ thing to do, but don’t try to shut any of us up.”
Erika Winkler’s mother Julie also spoke out against the situation, and expressed that bullying is the real issue that should be being solved here:
“Bullying I truly believe does start at home, what children are being taught nowadays. It is a growing concern that they are not sensitive to feelings, a lot of the problem is that they are not taught about God, and God’s love, and God’s love for others to be shared. Her goal in life was to serve and protect, she wanted to be a police officer, and she did that with others when it came to the word and she did that with those of all different faiths. So I feel that this bullying in so many different ways starts at home, starts with these parents, and I do feel that being a pastor and attacked because of what he said is very sad. I think if you pulled the audience that was there for the graduation you’d probably find out that the huge majority was very thankful for his speech, and I also feel that Lee saying something and coming forth now is very disrespectful to our children and to those that have stood up for Pastor Dupree, and for all those that stand up for their word. This is a big problem in all areas and I do hope that it can be squelched.”
“If we brought more of God back maybe a lot of our violence and issues and bullying would stop, and get people to have softer hearts and look at people for who they are, just like Erika did, she loved everyone as much as she could but she got a lot of backlash and that really needs to stop. Also I do feel that the people who are at the school do need to listen to these kids more and they need to be more aware of it also.”
Dupree also spoke out against the Outagamie Republican Party’s Facebook post that said Dupree advocated to “bring God back in the class room:”
“It was not the post that I put up, I was not even aware of the post.”
“My overall intent was to speak on my personal perspective, my beliefs, by no means representing the Appleton Area School District. I do not lose my first amendment constitutional right to express who I am as a person and to try and take that and exploit it to say that religion in and of itself even in conversation should be expunged from the public square is far fetching from what the law is really stating. At that particular event I simply stated what I stated previously, every child regardless of faith, regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of particular persuasion, they should have the freedom to express who they are. I want to make this clear, because I made it clear on a few occasions, I don’t bow to the Republican party, I do not bow to the Democratic Party, I only bow to God. I’m not a politician I’m a preacher.
“As it pertains to bringing prayer back in school, yes in the sense that children should be able to sit down at a table and should be able to bless their meals, they should be able to have an open conversation about what they did on the weekend with their church service and not feel that they can’t.”
Dupree was elected to the Appleton School board in April.