Following widespread public criticism and a letter from a legal organization devoted to free speech, a public high school in Michigan has altered its opinion. It will permit religious reference in the graduation address of a Christian valedictorian.
On June 6, Elizabeth Turner, a senior at Hillsdale High School, is scheduled to present the graduation speech to her school as the senior class valedictorian.
However, administrators at Hillsdale High School informed her she could not mention God or her Christian religion.
“For me, my future hope is found in my relationship with Christ,” Turner wrote in her prepared remarks.
The principal of Hillsdale High School, Amy Goldsmith, told Turner that talking about her faith in Jesus Christ is “not appropriate.”
“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,” Goldsmith replied the student in an email.
Turner later contacted First Liberty Institute, one of the nation’s leading religious liberty law companies that defends First Amendment rights, after realizing she could not mention God.
A letter was submitted to Principal Amy Goldsmith on Wednesday, May 26, by First Liberty Institute, warning that the school had breached the U.S. Constitution and requesting that the valedictorian should be allowed to speak about her beliefs as she had intended.
After receiving that letter, the school officials have overturned their decision.
First Liberty Institute Counsel Keisha Russell commended the school’s move to “ensure that religious students can freely exercise their right to express their faith in a graduation speech” on Thursday, May 27.
“I’m grateful I will be able to share my faith with my classmates, and I pray that God uses this situation to advance His kingdom,” Turner stated in a statement released by First Liberty Institute on Thursday.
According to Russell, students retain their constitutional rights of free speech from primary school through to high school graduation, and all public schools should protect students’ private religious freedom.
According to the United States Department of Education, students and other graduation speakers may not be prohibited from mentioning religious topics or even offering prayers.
“Hillsdale High School must comply with the law by allowing private student religious expression during graduation,” First Liberty wrote in the letter to Principal Goldsmith. “By doing so, it will teach students that the government should treat religion neutrally.”