When our Nation’s Founding Fathers wrote the Establishment Clause into the Bill of Rights, they envisioned it as a protective device – a means of safeguarding citizens from a federally-mandated religion. In just over two hundred years, it has instead become a weapon often wielded by government bureaucrats to stamp out any vestige of religion from our public life. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito even warned that religious liberty is "fast becoming a disfavored right."
Among the most likely to brandish the Establishment Clause are school districts. Instead of cultivating conversations and curiosity, district officials are quick to quash any conversation that dare mention the Divine.
This time of year is particularly ripe for censorship.
Over the next several weeks, valedictorians all over the country will deliver commencement speeches and express gratitude for all the people who helped them complete school. Unfortunately, some schools will use this as an opportunity to censor graduation speeches under a perverted understanding of the Establishment Clause.
Instead of embracing the private speech of their brightest students, districts claim that the "separation of church and state" requires the government to rid graduation ceremonies of religious expression. Because the Constitution requires the opposite, 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 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, school officials 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." After First Liberty Institute sent a letter to the school explaining the law (and after Elizabeth appeared in several media interviews), they reversed their decision.
Just days later, Savannah Lefler faced the same fate. As the Class Scholar for 2021, Savannah was selected to give a short speech during her school’s Senior Honors Night. In her speech, she wanted to encourage graduates to live a life of purpose, explaining that the purpose of her life is "to live a life devoted to Christ."
After reviewing a draft of Savannah’s speech, her principal sent an email stating, "Unfortunately, we are a public educational institution and must legally abide by the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Through past Supreme Court cases, rulings have stated that government institutions, including public schools, cannot favor one religion over any others. This would include honors speeches since it would be an official communication from the school." In a phone call, school officials told Savannah the speech was too "Christianized." We again sent a letter informing the school of their erroneous Constitutional interpretation, and they reversed course.
By now, school officials should know better. The Supreme Court of the United States has long held that student graduation speeches constitute private speech, not government speech, and private speech is not subject to the Establishment Clause. Even more, a student’s statements do not transform into government speech simply because they are delivered in a public setting or to a public audience.
But the law goes even further to protect students’ religious liberty rights in school. Schools cannot establish a "religion of secularism" by showing hostility to religion, thus preferring students who believe in no religion over those who do believe. This kind of censorship is called viewpoint discrimination, and it is unconstitutional. On this front, the Establishment Clause cannot be weaponized against students.
In a time when religious liberty is increasingly attacked, it’s important to have brave people like Elizabeth and Savannah. The law is clear that students and teachers do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. As laboratories of democracy, it is vital that religious freedom thrive in our schools. This graduation season, we encourage students across the country to celebrate embarking on their new journey in life by rejoicing in the religious freedom we have in America.
Keisha Russell is Counsel to First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all.