Thanking mom, dad, and Jesus
Michigan school changes course, allows valedictorian's religious message
Michigan high school senior Elizabeth Turner has a message for her graduating class: “For me, my future hope is found in my relationship with Christ.” But the valedictorian’s graduation speech proved too religious for her public high school principal, who asked her to remove references to her faith.
Hillsdale High School Principal Amy Goldsmith reviewed the draft speech and told Turner she had to drop her religious comments. “We need to be mindful about the inclusion of religious aspects,” she said. “These are your strong beliefs, but they are not appropriate for a speech in a school public setting.”
But Goldsmith relented on Friday after receiving a letter from First Liberty Institute counsel Keisha Russell saying her actions were unconstitutional. Russell said student graduation speeches are private speech, not government speech, and don’t mean the school is endorsing a particular religion. She noted the U.S. Department of Education recognized that distinction in January 2020 guidance, which says as long as the student or other graduation speaker is free to say what they want, “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.” The situation is different if the school determines or controls the content of the speech.
Schools leery of giving students a platform to share their faith could end the practice of having graduation speeches, but Russell said this would be a mistake. Any perceived danger in students seeing their classmates engaging in religious expression, including prayer, is no greater than the danger in students seeing religion banned from public view, she said. A 2001 Supreme Court ruling found excluding faith groups could cause students to think a school was hostile to religion.
For the graduating Turner, the school’s about-face on her June 6 speech is a welcome end to an unusual senior year. “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.
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