Elizabeth Turner is a Hillsdale High School senior (MI), and one of the valedictorians speaking at graduation on June 6th. In one section of her speech, Elizabeth references her faith saying, “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.”
After reviewing Elizabeth’s speech, the school’s principal, Amy Goldsmith, highlighted these two paragraphs and told Elizabeth, “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.” Student graduation speeches constitute private speech, not government speech, and private speech is not subject to the Establishment Clause. Ms. Turner’s statements do not transform into government speech simply because they are delivered in a public setting or to a public audience.
First Liberty Institute has sent a letter to the principal, informing Ms. Goldsmith that she is violating federal law, which permits private religious speech at school events, and demanding that she allow Elizabeth to reference her faith.
“Graduation is a time for celebration not censorship,” said Keisha Russell, Counsel for First Liberty Institute. “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.”
For Immediate Release: 5.27.21
Contact: Lacey McNiel, firstname.lastname@example.org
Breaking: Michigan School Reverses, Will Allow Religious References in Student’s High School Graduation Speech
School responded after letter from First Liberty Institute
Hillsdale, MI—After receiving a letter from First Liberty Institute, school officials at Hillsdale (MI) high school reversed a decision that prevented Elizabeth Turner, a graduating senior, from referencing her faith in her valedictory speech. School officials told Elizabeth to alter her valedictory speech to remove any reference to her religious viewpoint.
“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.”
Elizabeth Turner said, “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.”
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About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.
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