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.


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