Graduation was supposed to be a joyous time for Sam Blackledge, but the valedictorian of West Prairie High School in Sciota, Illinois, said the experience left him feeling awful.
“I never felt that feeling before,” he told Fox News. “It was terrible. I felt like I wanted to cry."
For months, the 18-year-old said he planned to reference his love of Jesus and his Christian faith during a graduation speech to the few dozen members of the Class of 2018. Blackledge turned in his speech to school administrators the day of graduation, he told KFVS12, but administrators told him he had to remove all religious references just ten minutes before he was set to deliver the remarks.
Blackledge said he wanted to mention God because faith is a crucial part of his identity — and he didn't care if others were offended.
"There's always people out there that will go against what I have to say, and nobody always agrees, but I believe this is the truth," he said in an interview with KFVS12. "It's impacted my life, and I wanted to share the hope of Christ with others."
The valedictorian provided The McDonough Voice with a copy of his speech. It was centered around four themes: "Evil, justice, love, and forgiveness."
Blackledge then connected those four things to Jesus, as seen in this portion of the prepared speech.
"I want you to think for a moment, is there any event in history where these four converged in one place? Where did Evil, Justice, Love and Forgiveness converge at a moment in history?" he planned to say, according to The McDonough Voice. "Can I take you to a hill called Calvary and show you the person of Jesus Christ? The Cross of Christ shows us our own evil hearts, that we would put an innocent man up to die. Christ came to show us God’s justice in dealing with the unfairness of the world.
"...The most important thing in your life is to find that intimacy with God. He will guide you, he will hold you, and he will take you through safely in your journey," he planned to continue. "As you search for goodness, justice, love, and forgiveness, know that only God is big enough to provide that for you."
At first, officials at the high school didn't want Blackledge to give any speech, the teen's attorney Jeremy Dys told The McDonough Voice, but they finally relented and allowed him to give a "very generic" speech without any religious comments.
That didn't satisfy Blackledge, the teen told Fox News.
“The most important thing in my life is Christ,” he said. “Christ is the only reason I was a valedictorian. He’s the reason I got that 4.0. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be up there. I was giving Him the credit for that.”
Dys, from First Liberty Institute, said the high school violated Blackledge's constitutional rights.
“We believe the school district has acted wrongly against the Constitution here," he added in an interview with The McDonough Voice. "We are going to determine exactly what the best actions are to take after that.“
But through it all, Blackledge — who said he is meeting with the superintendent on Wednesday — told KSFV12 that he has at least received the support of many in the community.
"Even people I don't know and never have seen before, they come up to me and ask me if I'm the kid that this happened to," he said. "Then, they say I'm standing behind you, and I really appreciate all the support."
Carol Kilver, superintendent of West Prairie, told The McDonough Voice that the school is talking with legal counsel and declined further comment.