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When our nation’s founding fathers wrote the Establishment Clause into the Bill of Rights, they envisioned it as a protective device – a way to protect citizens of a federally mandated religion. In just over two hundred years, it has instead become a weapon often used by government bureaucrats to eradicate any vestige of religion from our public life. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito even warned that religious freedom “is becoming a disadvantaged right.”
Among those most likely to wield the Establishment Clause are school districts. Instead of cultivating conversations and curiosity, district officials are quick to stifle any conversation that dares to mention the Divine.
This time of year is particularly conducive to censorship.
Over the next few weeks, majors from across the country will deliver commencement speeches and express their gratitude to everyone who helped them complete their studies. Unfortunately, some schools will use this as an opportunity to censor graduation speeches under a perverse understanding of the Establishment Clause.
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Instead of embracing the private speech of their brightest students, the districts say the “separation of church and state” compels the government to rid graduation ceremonies of religious expression. Because the Constitution requires otherwise, the First Liberty Institute often represents valedictorians who face censorship by school officials.
Last year, Elizabeth Turner’s hard work earned her the right to speak at graduation as valedictorian. In her speech, Elizabeth referenced her faith saying, “For me, my future hope is in my relationship with Christ. By trusting in him and choosing to live a life dedicated to bringing the glory of his kingdom, I can be sure that I live a life with purpose and meaning My identity is found by what God says and what I want to become is spelled out in the scriptures.
After reviewing Elizabeth’s speech, school officials highlighted these two paragraphs and told Elizabeth, “We have to be careful about including religious aspects. These are your strong beliefs, but they are not appropriate for a speech in a public school setting. I know this will frustrate you, but we need to be aware of that.” After the First Liberty Institute sent a letter to the school explaining the law (and after Elizabeth appeared in several media interviews), they reversed their decision.
A few days later, Savannah Lefler suffered the same fate. As the Class Scholar for 2021, Savannah was selected to deliver a short speech at her school’s Senior Honors Night. In her speech, she wanted to encourage graduates to lead meaningful lives, explaining that her life’s purpose is “to live a life dedicated to Christ.”
After reviewing a draft of Savannah’s speech, her manager sent an email stating, “Unfortunately, we are a public educational institution and we must legally abide by the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In previous cases of the Supreme Court rulings have stated that government institutions, including public schools, cannot favor one religion over another. This would include speeches of honor since it would be an official communication of the school. In a phone call, school officials told Savannah that the speech was too “Christianized. We again sent a letter advising the school of their misguided constitutional interpretation, and they did reverse.
By now, school officials should know more. The United States Supreme Court has long held that student graduation speeches constitute private speech, not governmental speech, and that private speech is not subject to the Establishment Clause. More so, a student’s statements do not turn into government speech simply because they are delivered in a public place or before a public audience.
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But the law goes even further to protect students’ religious freedom rights at school. Schools cannot establish a “religion of secularism” by showing hostility to religion, thus preferring students who do not believe in any religion to those who do. This type of censorship is called viewpoint discrimination, and it is unconstitutional. On this front, the Establishment Clause cannot be weaponized against students.
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At a time when religious freedom is increasingly under attack, it’s important to have brave people like Elizabeth and Savannah. The law clearly states that students and teachers do not waive their constitutional rights at the school gate. As laboratories of democracy, it is vital that religious freedom thrives in our schools. This graduation season, we encourage students across the country to celebrate the start of their new journey in life by rejoicing in the religious freedom we have in America.
Keisha Russell is an attorney at First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to advancing religious freedom for all.
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