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School Violated First Amendment by Censoring Student’s Graduation Remarks

First Liberty sends letter educating school district about the law and defending students’ freedom to express their faith

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June 16, 2017



Watch Moriah Bridges and First Liberty Deputy General Counsel Jeremy Dys on Fox & Friends.

This week on Tuesday, June 13, First Liberty Institute sent a letter to the Beaver Area School District of Beaver, Pennsylvania, on behalf of Moriah Bridges. The 2017 graduating senior’s personal graduation remarks that included religious content were mischaracterized and deemed “not permissible” by the school district’s superintendent.

“The last lesson this school district taught its students is that they should hide their religious beliefs from public view. That fails the test of the First Amendment,” Jeremy Dys, Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty, stated. “School officials should remember that students retain their constitutional rights to freedom of expression from the schoolhouse gates, all the way through the graduation ceremony.”

First Liberty’s letter, sent to the superintendent and members of the school board, sought a meeting with the superintendent in order to protect students’ religious expression. The letter also asked for a written statement acknowledging that the school’s actions were wrong and a pledge that the school district would not censor religious speech in the future.

SUPERINTENDENT: STUDENT’S REMARKS “NOT PERMISSIBLE BY FEDERAL LAW”  

Moriah was asked by the senior class president to give closing remarks at the graduation ceremony on June 2, 2017. Moriah is a Christian, and she had crafted her remarks in a way that would, as First Liberty’s letter on her behalf stated, “express her best wishes for her classmates, drawing upon the faith that is central to her identity as a Christian.”

She submitted her remarks for review a few days before the ceremony. The next day, Moriah received an email that conveyed a message from the school district’s superintendent.

The superintendent had mischaracterized Moriah’s remarks as a prayer, and she had labeled the remarks of Moriah and another student as “not permissible”—regardless of whether they were student-initiated. The superintendent wrote:

The ceremony contains two instances of invocation/prayer/benediction; this is not permissible by federal law, as prayer (even student-initiated prayer) has been held to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court as a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The selected students may still address their class and indicate the things that they wish/hope for their class, but they may not do it in the style of a prayer and most certainly may not recite a prayer that excludes other religions (by ending “in the name of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” or “in the matchless name of Jesus”).

The email concluded by stating, “[W]e have to edit for the ceremony.”

“I was shocked that the school said my personal remarks broke the law and saddened that I could not draw upon my Christian identity to express my best wishes for my classmates on what should’ve been the happiest day of high school,” Moriah said. “I hope the school district will realize their mistake and make sure future students never have to go through this again.”

EDUCATING THE SCHOOL DISTRICT ON STUDENTS’ FREEDOM OF RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION 

“In short, school officials—in violation of the First Amendment—forced Moriah to censor her personal remarks during the closing exercise of her commencement ceremony merely because of the religious viewpoint of her remarks,” Dys stated in the letter sent Tuesday. He argued that the school’s actions against Moriah constituted unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.

Dys also noted that Moriah’s remarks were not actually subject to the Establishment Clause. This is because Moriah’s remarks were her own private speech, not government speech. Private, religious expression like Moriah’s “is entitled to full First Amendment protection.”

The letter cited several court cases, including the Supreme Court’s holding in the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

In fact, the letter even pointed to guidance from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) that specifically states that graduation speakers can use religious language. According to the DOE:

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.

First Liberty is dedicated to protecting religious freedom in the public schools, whether in the classroom or on the graduation stage. For information on religious freedom in schools, download First Liberty’s free Religious Liberty Protection Kit for Students and Teachers.

News and Commentary is brought to you by First Liberty’s team of writers and legal experts.

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