TIME FOR GRADUATION: First Liberty Institute Educates Student Speakers About Their Religious Liberty & Free Speech Rights

May 1, 2015

Free, downloadable resources empower valedictorians and salutatorians to express their faith in graduation speeches



As graduation season nears, valedictorians and salutatorians in high schools, universities, and colleges all across our nation are preparing their speeches. Many of these bright leaders of tomorrow are young men and women of faith—and they want to mention “God” or talk about their faith in their graduation speeches. But, because of years of deceptive arguments by anti-faith groups, students are afraid to talk about their faith.

“Ironically, most students of faith and even many educators simply aren’t aware that student religious liberty is protected—even at graduation,” says Kelly Shackelford, First Liberty Institute President & CEO. “As a result, students have been unlawfully silenced when those rights are violated by uninformed educators influenced by national anti-faith organizations.”


In recent years, First Liberty Institute has represented many graduates who faced opposition when they wanted to include references to their faith in their graduation speeches. Students including:

·      Salutatorian Brooks Hamby in CaliforniaHigh school officials censored salutatorian Brooks Hamby’s simple references to God in his graduation speech three different times. Then, they threatened to turn off his microphone if he dared read his speech with any inclusion of the Bible or his Christian faith. Brooks wouldn’t back down because he knew his rights. He gave his speech anyway, to thunderous applause, and we sent a letter on his behalf to his school administrators explaining why their efforts to censor his speech were unlawful.

·      Valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand in San Antonio, TexasPrior to Angela Hildenbrand’s graduation, a U.S. District Judge issued an order banning prayer offered by anyone during graduation and even threatened “incarceration” for anyone—including students—daring to violate the Judge’s order. First Liberty Institute filed an emergency motion requesting that the order threatening students who asserted their First Amendment rights with possible jail time be rescinded. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned the Judge’s order, allowing Hildenbrand to exercise her constitutional right to freely express her religious beliefs.

·      Valedictorian Roy Costner in South Carolina Roy Costner IV ripped apart the speech school officials had approved and then proceeded to talk about his Christian faith. First Liberty Institute is proud of Costner for making the bold decision to stand for his faith, and we provided legal counsel to him following his speech.

·      Valedictorian Remington Reimer in Joshua, Texas When graduating high school senior Remington Reimer began to talk of the Constitution and his faith in his valedictory address, school officials shut off his microphone.  First Liberty Institute sent a letter to Joshua ISD officials giving them 60 days to comply with state law. In response, Joshua ISD issued a formal apology to Remington Reimer.


What is happening to students like these is tragic and unnecessary. U.S. Supreme Court precedent and other court decisions and laws grant broad free speech and religious liberty rights to students in public school.

Religious influence by students is needed now more than ever: Levels of crime, drugs, unwed teen pregnancy, and suicide are rising in our nation’s schools. Academic scores and career readiness are falling. Research by the U.S. government and private agencies shows these catastrophic trends worsen as religious activity in school declines.

Students who care enough for their classmates to encourage them with lessons about how faith shaped their lives and contributed to their success in life and school should be encouraged, not threatened with censorship, turned off microphones, or incarceration. The Constitution protects that right for our students.

That’s why First Liberty Institute has created FREE, downloadable resources for students to get educated about their personal religious freedoms, including: 

·      Know Your Religious Rights Kit – One small booklet (or computer download) with at BIG impact! It fully equips students, parents, and teachers to know their religious liberties in public schools and be prepared to defend and restore their rights when they come under attack. The booklet gives step-by-step instructions, and information for contacting legal help when needed. It can transform one life . . . many lives . . . and even a whole school!

·      Student Bill of Rights in Schools Brochure– A powerful, condensed version of our “Know Your Religious Rights” kit that gives a quick overview of students’ rights when it comes to religious speech, expression, or practice in public schools. Attorney contact info is also included.

·      Teachers Guide – Educators are often misinformed by anti-faith groups—but usually respond well when the facts and law is carefully explained to them. This guide gives instructors convincing, documented, clearly-explained facts for how they can maintain First Amendment rights—including freedom of religion and speech—in schools.


Restoring religious freedom in public schools can happen, and in many cases is happening, as Americans wake up to the freedoms recognized in our Constitution.

This graduation season, students can include religious content, including prayer, in their graduation speeches so long as the students were selected by neutral criteria (e.g. valedictorian and salutatorian are selected by grade point average, class officers are selected by a student body vote) and the control over the content of each address is left to the students, and not the school.

If you are a student who has been given the privilege of addressing your classmates at graduation this year and want to make sure that what you say reflects your values, please contact us. First Liberty Institute would be pleased to evaluate your speech against what your school requires and the Constitution permits.

If you have had your religious liberty rights violated, or know of a graduate who has, please email First Liberty Institute at or call us at (972) 941-4444. 

Please click here if you would like to give a donation to help defend and restore religious freedom.

Other stories:

JUDGES vs. YOUR PASTOR? Proposed Law Would Protect Clergy from Being Forced to Participate in Ceremonies that Violate Their Faith

About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit

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