Court Rules That Administrators Were Right to Remove Bible Verse from Student’s Graduation Speech

If you’re a student who really wants to proselytize to your classmates, there are plenty of opportunities to do it: On weekends, outside of school, during lunch, etc. But a lot of Christians aren’t satisfied with that — they want to talk about Jesus in a way so that students are forced to listen. The courts have said they can’t do that over the loudspeakers during morning announcements or over the loudspeakers at athletic events. So many student speakers have tried to use their platform at graduation ceremonies to invoke the name of God.

That’s what happened in one particular case in 2009.

A student named “A.M.” (in court documents) was given the chance to speak at her middle school’s graduation since she was student council co-president. She wanted to close an otherwise typical speech with a paraphrase of a Bible verse: Numbers 6:24-26 (a.k.a. The Priestly Benediction):

“As we say our goodbyes and leave middle school behind, I say to you, may the LORD bless you and keep you; make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

A.M. asked one of her teachers to look over her speech (for “punctuation and grammar”) and the teacher, noticing the verse, brought it to the attention of her bosses. Eventually, they got her to agree not to say that last line of her speech.

… and not long after that, the student’s family sued the school district.

Last year, a district court dismissed their lawsuit. So the family appealed.

Americans United filed an amicus brief (PDF) supporting the school district in which they explained why this wasn’t a violation of the student’s rights:

… the School District would have violated the Establishment Clause if it had allowed A.M. to close her graduation speech with her planned prayer. The School District would have coercively imposed the prayer upon a captive audience of middle-school students and family members. And the School District would have communicated to the audience that it endorsed A.M.’s religious message, for the District had a practice of reviewing all graduation speeches, the District selected A.M. to give a speech based on her position as a student-council president, the District organized and oversaw the graduation ceremony, the ceremony took place in the District’s auditorium, and school banners and signs were on display at the ceremony.

And just the other day, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with AU (PDF): The school did the right thing in preventing the student from proselytizing on stage:

The final sentence in A.M.’s speech consisted of a direct quotation from the Old Testament calling for a divine blessing of the audience, rather than a statement offering a religiously-informed viewpoint on an otherwise secular subject matter… Our understanding of A.M.’s speech is confirmed by her own characterization of the sentence as a “blessing” motivated by her desire to deliver “blessings from God.”… We therefore conclude that the Defendants acted reasonably in requiring that A.M. remove the final sentence from her speech.

AU’s Rob Boston explains why the court made the right decision:

… No one would try to stop A.M. for having casual discussions with her friends about religion (as long as it doesn’t rise to level of harassment). In this case, A.M. wanted to do something much different: She wanted to hijack the apparatus of the public school system and proselytize everyone during a public event. School officials don’t have to allow that.

As a practical matter, school officials must retain control over events like graduation. Granting students an unfettered right to say anything could result in some uncomfortable situations.

There’s a potential loophole in there for religious administrators, though: If they just refuse to review students’ speeches, they could plausibly deny that they had any knowledge of proselytizing if and when it happens. And it would totally happen. Just think about all the religious students (and you know they’d all be Christians) who would gladly turn a celebratory occasion for everybody into their own personal church service. Why congratulate everyone for all their hard work paying off when you can just thank Jesus on their behalf instead?

Still, this decision from the court is a welcome pushback against the Religious Right, Jr. Edition. They already have plenty of opportunities to preach — there’s no reason they need to do it in front of a captive audience at a public event.

(Thanks to Brian for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • DKeane123

    If the administrators don’t review the speeches ahead of time – I will do everything in my power for my kids to do well enough to thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The speech should include something like “thank you for bestowing upon us the blessed carbs and therefore giving the vital energy to do well in school…”

    • Jake

      Bye Bye Freedom of Speech.
      Make any excuse you want, but its censorship.

      • DKeane123

        Not sure I would view it the same way as an atheist sitting in the auditorium. And the school is not a haven for free speech – you cannot walk the halls or force assemblies to listen to your speech that has a separate purpose than the school’s primary function – learning.

  • Blacksheep

    Adding a religious verse to a speech is not “proselytizing” Especially that one!

    I don’t think she’s “trying to convert” anyone.

    • Baby_Raptor

      Why else would she need to say it out loud, in front of everyone, if not to proselytize? If she sincerely just wanted to ask god to bless everyone, she can do that in a non-public way that doesn’t force everyone around her to be involved.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      “Work hard and make the most of your life, because it’s all you’ve got. There’s no heaven above, nor hell below. In the end, we’re all worm food.”

      • http://bsoi.st/ bsoist

        Rich, can I quote your comment in my blog post?

        • Quintin van Zuijlen

          You’d be quoting a quote, don’t think Rich could object.

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            If it’s a direct quote, I’m not aware of the source. No plagiarism intended. The heaven/hell part is reminiscent of of “Imagine”, but that’s the only source I had in mind. That said, I don’t care.

            • http://bsoi.st/ bsoist

              Some of it seemed familiar ( worm food reminded me of dead poets society which I watched with my daughter recently – she’d never seen it ), but I thought it was your words. I’m not “quoting” you in a any grand way, just wanted to make reference to the comment in my post. I usually like to ask first. Thanks.

              • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

                A bucket list movie for HS students if ever there was one.

                • http://bsoi.st/ bsoist

                  I kept telling my daughter “it will change your life.”

                  BTW, we really enjoy watching it now that we’ve moved to DE. If you live here, the movie clearly looks like it was shot here.

      • Blacksheep

        If you said that in your graduation speech that would be fine!

    • Thegoodman

      “I don’t think”….then we are lucky that your opinion does not matter.

      I wish more student would conclude speeches with this little pearl of wisdom.

      “Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house,
      and the men shall stone her with stones that she die. Psalms 137:9″

      • Blacksheep

        Why would they want to add that to a graduation speech? Makes no sense, out of context, not uplifting.

        • rlrose328

          There are no rules that graduation speechs have to be uplifting. I don’t find the one she chose to be uplifting… it is words going out into the air. Therefore, any verse will work just fine if she is trying to proselytize. If she just wants everyone to know she’s a Christian, she can just say so without the verse and it would have been fine.

        • Thegoodman

          I was making a (bad) joke. I was just pointing out that for every inspiring and uplifting passage from the bible there are just as many deplorable ones.

          The bible is full of verses, the selection of ones that are “nice” seems disingenuous while so many of the “bad” ones are ignored.

    • The Other Weirdo

      And years ago, when my Catholic girlfriend used to try and drag me to church despite knowing that I didn’t believe and was(am) Jewish, it wasn’t for conversion, either. I know this to true because she said so. It was to “share”.

    • baal

      Sigh. The “proselytizing” part is from the entirety of the context. If she delivered the bible verse to her friends at lunch or after school that would be ok. The issue here is that the student council co-president (a school (read government) sanctioned position) at a school (read government) compulsory event (no choice to attend or not) is engaging in sectarian words to a captive audience. That’s all that’s required for the words to not be ok. The appearance is that the government is giving it’s stamp of approval on christian religion.

    • coyotenose

      Try reading the article with the multiple explanations of it again.

      Your religion is designed around proselytization, thanks.

  • Bdole

    The chapter right before the one A.M. used has god performing abortions:

    “21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell….
    24 He
    shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and
    this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter
    her. ”

    I wonder if the student ever read THAT chapter. No, she was probably just directed to the blessings.

  • http://bsoi.st/ bsoist

    I’m not sure what to think about this. I think I disagree with the court’s decision, but that surprises me a little bit. I can see why they made this call, but I see a lot of problems stripping student speeches of personal meaning.

    There is very little doubt this will end up the subject of a blog post of my own.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      This one does have me going back and forth a bit. My quote above was an attempt to see what it would feel like to have a declarative statement about the existence of God go the other way. We all suffer from Christian privilege and we’ve become accustomed to the assumption, wither we agree with it or not.

      I think this speech would bother me a lot less than the 2012 POTUS benediction.

      Can you imagine:

      We must all work together to strengthen our communities, lest hatred and arrogance infect our hearts. With hard work and co-operation we know that we can break down the walls that separate us. We must strive to treat each other with dignity and respect, lest distrust, prejudice and rancor rule our hearts. With the knowledge that only we can make the world we want to live in, we know that we can renew the ties of mutual regard which can best form our civic life.

      (maybe it needs a bit more, “There is no God to lead us, we can only lead ourselves” or something)

      • http://bsoi.st/ bsoist

        > My quote above was an attempt to see what it would feel like to have a declarative statement about the existence of God go the other way.

        Well, you made your point – that’s exactly what I thought you were doing. That’s why I wanted to quote you in my post. It’s a good counter example.

        I’m still wrapping my head around my thoughts on this. I think A.M. quoting a verse is okay, and I think you’re quote is okay. Seems like if we can’t say one, we can’t say the other – and where does that leave us?

        • bethelj

          It leaves me sending my kid to private school.

          • http://bsoi.st/ bsoist

            We relocated our family by 90 miles so my children could attend a Christian school that was academically strong ( and didn’t teach creation “science” or intelligent design ). My children received a good education, but it came with a lot of baggage. I’m rethinking my support of Christian education, but it turned out okay for my kids. They’ve certainly learned not to believe everything they’re told.

    • Mario Strada

      If she crafted her own benediction mentioning God, I probably would have the same qualms, but she quotes the bible. Is that “personal meaning”?

      We also have to look at these things in context. The same family that obviously pushed her daughter to include the bible verse in her speech and then sued the school for censoring it, very likely would be on the front lines condemning a similar speech quoting the Koran.
      That’s one of the reasons that schools should not be seen to endorse one religion over another. Especially as our population becomes ethnically and religiously more varied keeping religion away from official celebrations sounds like the best policy to me.

      • http://bsoi.st/ bsoist

        Good point. What I meant by personal meaning was that students should be able to share from their hearts what’s important to them. Drawing the line at direct quotes might be the best idea.

        I hate to speak for someone else, but I tend to agree with you that this family would have had an issue with quoting from the Koran. I would not. (though your comment has me wondering, as I mentioned above, if drawing the line at quotes might be a good idea ).

        It’s a slightly personal issue for me. My son took quite a bit of flack for his senior grad speech because some people didn’t think it had a strong enough “Christian message” – as if he were supposed to be preaching. It was an inspiring speech and the speech his classmates expected out of him. He mentioned God once in a personal way and quoted from the ending of _Of Gods and Men_ but since it touched on what some call “atheist themes” like living life with no regrets, etc, and because it didn’t sound like it was drafted from the fundamentalist talking points, it wasn’t “Christian enough.”

        BTW, my son didn’t quote any scripture, but he did have two direct quotes – the one from the movie I mentioned, and one from the writer of _Fight Club_. Neither comes from a “holy” book, but both could be interpreted as “religious” in nature.

        • eric

          The crux of the matter (to me) is that the school administration is exercising editorial control over the speeches. As long as they do that, they at least partially “own” the message, and constitutional restrictions on state speech come in to play.

          Giving up editorial control, and making some formal announcement or mention in any written program that the “student address” part of the program is separate from the administration and that the student speaks only for themself, would probably make this program go away.

          • http://bsoi.st/ bsoist

            I agree.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    Just my pet peeve, but does anyone else not see the point in a middle school graduation? My school I attended did 8th grade graduation and I guess I can sort of see the point as a small coming of age ceremony, but I view it as pointless. Just my view anyway.

    Glad that they ruled for the school.

    • allein

      8th grade graduation is what made me hate Pomp and Circumstance.
      Also, I had to wear a gold gown and I do not look good in yellow.
      On the other hand, middle school sucked so I was pretty glad it was done.

  • David Starner

    They’re welcome to stop reviewing the messages, but they don’t want to lose the control. They want the control to stop pro-marijuana messages, for example. If they’re willing to lose control over their platform, then it’s not longer a state-controlled speech… but they wisely have no intent of giving up that control.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson
      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

        +1 for pointing that out, not for the schools forcing a cheerleader to cheer on her rapist.

        Speaking of that case, do we know how it turned out?

        • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

          Yes, SCOTUS was her last hope, and they refused to hear the case. The actual rape case was settled as an aggravated assault if I recall correctly. I do know the actual event didn’t end in a ‘rape’ conviction, but did end with a conviction indicating that she was indeed a victim of the accused. Which is why I wrote ‘their rapist’ not ‘their accused rapist’. Strictly legally technically ‘rapist’ isn’t correct, but I used the word with forethought and intent.

          • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

            On the one hand, acknowledgement that she was, in fact, a victim. On the other… no real justice for her.

        • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson
          • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

            Can’t let anything happen to our star athletes, so let’s shove her under the bus. Ugh.

  • Ben Porter

    Quite honestly i always feel a little sympathy Towards the students in these cases. This student was not going to say everyone convert or you go to hell. This student was simply wishing that god would bless the other students. This student does not see this as a bad thing nor do i think the student was trying to do it to convert people. I think the student was simply talking about what was a help leaving highschool and moving to the world beyond. i can see why you would have to stop any type of religious speech to prevent people from trying to change graduation into a revival, but I do not believe you can look down upon this particular student and accuse them of such.

    • coyotenose

      Given the student’s age, she certainly gets some benefit of the doubt. She probably wasn’t trying to say that everyone should convert or go to Hell. But it is implicit in the religion. And even if it weren’t, the issue is the promotion of any religion, not the intent behind such promotion.

      Unfortunately, her family has probably by now convinced her that she’s a persecuted victim whose rights are being trampled on because of her unpopular minority beliefs. There’s been three years of reinforcement of that. If my math is right, she graduates a senior in a few months. Five bucks says she’s being encouraged to sneak in that verse if she gets to speak, and that she’ll do it.

  • Whisker

    Say what you want, but I still think it would have been waaaay more fun if they would have let her tell her silly little fairy tale… And then have her surprised by having her booed and hissed at full blast by the audience.

    I bet her face would have been a REAL Kodak moment… :-)

    And yes, I am evil. Sometimes.
    And I do stand up for it and don’t weasel out via confession or the like… :-]


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