Graduation Speech Rights

Can you pray at graduation? Can you mention God in your graduation speech? Yes and yes!

Students can include religious content, including prayer, in their graduation speech if:

  • Students are selected by neutral criteria (for example, valedictorians and salutatorians are selected by GPA, or class officers are selected by a student body vote.)
  • Control over the content of each address is left to the students – not the school.

Your school can’t discriminate.

For example, if the school allows the valedictorian, salutatorian, class president, and class vice-president to each speak for a certain amount of time, and the students have control over the content of their speeches, then the school cannot discriminate against students who wish to incorporate religious speech, including prayer, in their addresses.

It’s the law

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines:
“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 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. 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.”

A few courts don’t follow the rest of the country.
Please note, however, that a few courts have deviated from this generally accepted rule regarding the permissibility of religious content in graduation speeches. In one case, the Ninth Circuit (Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington) determined that when school officials exercise complete control over a graduation ceremony, including student speech, that the school officials may remove proselytizing and sectarian language from a student’s graduation speech.  The court determined that an objective observer would perceive the speech to be approved and endorsed by the school, and therefore the school could remove the proselytizing comments to avoid an Establishment Clause violation.

If a public school attempts to censor your graduation speech, please contact First Liberty Institute immediately for further advice and guidance.

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