A school official’s insistence that a graduating senior’s proposed honors speech is too “Christianized” and that it be changed is being challenged by a legal team that specializes in religious rights.
According to officials at First Liberty Institute, the fight is over demands by officials at John Glenn High School in Westland, Michigan, that senior Savannah Lefler change her speech because, in their opinion, it fails to address adequately the diversity of beliefs in the school.
“How many more graduations have to be ruined before school officials learn that the First Amendment guards student remarks at graduation?” said Stephanie Taub, senior counsel at First Liberty. “The Constitution protects students from having their religious viewpoint cancelled during a graduation speech. We urge Wayne-Westland Community school officials to follow the law and allow student religious speech at graduation related events.”
In a letter to Principal Michael Wegher, the organization explains how Taub proposed featuring her Christian faith in her speech.
She wanted to explained how Plato urged people to obtain knowledge, and Charles Darwin insisted the most fit survive, and other faiths claim people should be “good.”
Her perspective is different, she said.
“I want to urge you not to waste your life. Seek the truth. But how is this possible? I’d argue that the philosophies listed above are wrong. The purpose of life is to live a life devoted to Christ. Westminster Catechism Number One, ‘The chief purpose for which man is made is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”
The principal responded with, “We have students and staff who would identity as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindi, Sikh, Jehovah’s Witness, atheist, etc. We must be inclusive and respectful of their beliefs as well.”
He demanded “a revision that sticks to a non-secular (sic) approach. … We cannot take the approach that is currently laid out in your speech.”
The Institute noted that U.S. Department of Education Guidance instructs that statements in such graduation speeches are “not attributable to the school and therefore may not be restricted because of its religious … content.”
The Institute insisted that the school “comply with the law.”
First Liberty explained Lefler was selected Class Scholar for 2021 and given permission for a speech during Senior Honors Night.
Fox News reported the school district issued a statement, but didn’t address the censorship.
The school said, instead, “Traditionally, student speakers are selected as part of the festivities and celebration. Every student that has the honor of speaking at this ceremony has demonstrated a deep commitment to their educational success and we celebrate their accomplishments with them.
“When students are thrust onto the stage of an honors celebration, we recognize that we have an academic responsibility to walk with them in that process. Public speaking at an event of this magnitude is similar to playing in a championship game. It is a difficult challenge. When students play a sport, coaches are there to walk with them to help them engage and succeed at the highest level. When students speak at these events, our school leadership is there to walk alongside and coach them to success.”
Just days earlier, officials at the schools in Hillsdale, Michigan, abruptly reversed themselves and decided to allow their valedictorian to reference God in her speech, to which they had earlier objected.
First Liberty also worked with senior Elizabeth Turner in that case.
“We are grateful to school officials for acting swiftly to ensure that religious students can freely exercise their right to express their faith in a graduation speech,” said Keisha Russell, counsel for First Liberty Institute. “Elizabeth is thrilled that she’ll be able to celebrate her graduation without being censored. We hope that future graduates will be free from religious censorship.”
Turner said, in a statement released by her lawyers, “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.”
Only a day earlier, First Liberty said it had written to the principal insisting that Turner be allowed to deliver her speech as she had prepared it.
“Graduation is a time for celebration not censorship,” said Russell, “Students retain their constitutional rights to freedom of expression from elementary school all the way through the graduation ceremony. All public schools should protect the private religious expression of their students.”
The school, requiring a copy of the speech in advance, had highlighted these two paragraphs written by Turner:
For me, my future hope is found in my relationship with Christ. By trusting in him and choosing to live a life dedicated to bringing his kingdom glory, I can be confident that I am living a life with purpose and meaning. My identity is found by what God says and who I want to become is laid out in scripture.
Whether we want to admit it or not, not one of us can be certain of how our lives will unfold, but we do know that trials will come. The reality of this is that we face an unpredictable future, and while we are making all these plans to prepare, ultimately none of us are promised tomorrow, making it all the more important to make today count.
School officials had warned her, “You are representing the school in the speech, not using the podium as your public forum. We need to be mindful about the inclusion of religious aspects. These are your strong beliefs, but they are not appropriate for a speech in a school public setting. I know this will frustrate you, but we have to be mindful of it.”
First Liberty explained the message from the school was that the speech was “on behalf of the school and the school could not make religious statements.”
But, First Liberty said, student graduation speeches “constitute private speech, not government speech, and private speech is not subject to the Establishment Clause.”
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