For the second time in a week, a religious liberty law firm has cautioned Michigan high schools attempting to censor valedictorians wishing to mention Jesus Christ in their graduation speeches.
In the most recent case, Savannah Lefler, a graduating senior at John Glenn High School in Westland, Michigan, submitted a draft of her proposed valedictory speech to school officials recently. She was informed by her principal, unfortunately, that the references to her faith were “very Christianized” and needed to be reworded to be more inclusive of other faiths.
Lefler pointed out to her principal that U.S. Department of Education guidelines clearly state that when graduation speakers are chosen by neutral criteria such as grades, their speeches are their own, and not government speech. The principal, Michael Wegher, agreed to set up a meeting with the school’s legal counsel to discuss the matter on Wednesday, the day of Lefler’s anticipated speech.
First Liberty Institute, a public interest law firm specializing in religious freedom, contacted the school on Lefler’s behalf in a letter warning that the school was violating her First Amendment rights if it went ahead with its censorship of her speech.
“Censoring private speech because of its religious viewpoint violates the First Amendment,” First Liberty lawyers Mike Berry and Stephanie Taub wrote. “As the Class Scholar, Ms. Lefler was selected based on neutral criteria, and she was instructed to speak from her experiences using her words. It is unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination to permit student graduation speeches that discuss various philosophies or worldviews but prohibit a speech that focuses on the student’s own worldview because it is religious.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer and Religious Expression in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, to which Lefler and First Liberty referred in their communications with the principal, are clear and specific in their protection of the rights of graduation speakers:
“School officials may not mandate or organize prayer at graduation or select speakers for such events in a manner that favors religious speech such as prayer. Where students or other private graduation speakers are selected on the basis of genuinely content-neutral, evenhanded criteria and retain primary control over the content of their expression, however, that expression is not attributable to the school and therefore may not be restricted because of its religious (or anti-religious) content and may include prayer. To avoid any mistaken perception that a school endorses student or other private speech that is not in fact attributable to the school, school officials may make appropriate, neutral disclaimers to clarify that such speech (whether religious or nonreligious) is the speaker’s and not the school’s speech.”
As The Daily Citizen goes to press, there has been no word on whether the school has changed its mind and will permit Lefler to give her speech in its original form.
In an earlier case that developed a week ago, Elizabeth Turner of Hillsdale High School in Hillsdale, Michigan, wanted to reference her Christian faith in her upcoming valedictory speech. After she was initially denied permission to do so, First Liberty contacted school officials with the same type of letter it sent to John Glenn High School, and Hillsdale officials responded by reversing their earlier decision and have allowed Turner to give her desired speech on June 6, the date of her graduation ceremony.
First Liberty attributes problems such as these to a misunderstanding on the part of school officials as to what the First Amendment guarantees and what it prohibits.
“Too often, we have seen well-meaning school officials who think they are complying with the Establishment Clause mistakenly go too far and censor the private speech of students, violating students’ rights under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses,” First Liberty lawyers told Hillsdale officials.
Turner was delighted with Hillsdale’s change of heart. “I’m grateful I will be able to share my faith with my classmates, and I pray that God uses this situation to advance His kingdom,” she said in a First Liberty press release.
Because she understood and defended her First Amendment rights, Turner will be able to share with those in attendance at her graduation on June 6 who Jesus Christ is and what He means to her. We pray that Savannah Lefler will likewise be free to do the same. Kudos to the legal team at First Liberty for coming to the aid of these young people who are bold enough to want to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to their fellow students and families.
UPDATE on 6/2/21: Good News! Lefler will be allowed to give her speech as originally written, according to CBN News.
Photo from John Glenn High School