When it comes to public school graduations, it’s pretty clear that school officials have no business offering prayers from the stage. They can’t include it in the program. They can’t invite students to do their dirty work for them. Students also can’t “vote” for a prayer.
But what about student speakers? There have been issues in the past where student council presidents or valedictorians, for example, have used their time to talk about their faith. The question then becomes when the school ought to step in.
In general, if the school vets speeches and knows what students are going to say on stage, then students’ speeches are no different than administrators’ speeches. No prayer is allowed. If the school doesn’t vet speeches, then students can get away with it.
And that leads us to this controversy in Michigan: At John Glenn High School, valedictorian Savannah Lefler submitted a draft of her speech to administrators before “Honors Night.” The speech included a line about how the “purpose of life is to live a life devoted to Christ.”
The school did exactly what the school needed to do: They told her she couldn’t say that because it could come off as a promotion of Christianity by the school.
Now the conservative Christian group First Liberty is acting like this is some kind of faith-based censorship:
“Too often, we have seen well-meaning school officials thinking they are complying with the Establishment Clause mistakenly go too far and censor the private speech of students, violating students’ rights under the Free Speech Clause,” said First Liberty general counsel Mike Berry and senior counsel Stephanie Taub.
It’s not going too far, because when school officials vet the speech, they have a right to control what is being said.
And yet in a similar case at Hillsdale High School (also in Michigan) last week, First Liberty successfully got the school to back off even though a valedictorian there was using her platform to talk about Jesus.
There’s a bit of a difference though. At Hillsdale, the student was going to talk about how she personally has a “relationship with Christ.” At John Glenn High School, the student apparently says the purpose of everyone‘s life is to accept Jesus.
It’s a weird time to tell her Jewish, Muslim, and atheist classmates they’re all going to be tortured for eternity.
I get why the schools might cave under pressure in these situations. These may not be the hills they want to die on, lawsuits are expensive, and the court system right now allows religion to be an excuse to get away with practically anything. But if they were smarter, the administrators would just make sure students’ speeches are either eliminated from graduation entirely or never seen in advance by the adults. Would that invite chaos? Sure. (Just wait until someone promotes Satanism.) But it would avoid potential problems, too.
Even stepping away from the legal questions, though, these students are unbelievably selfish, using this opportunity to speak to their classmates to proselytize. They could say something uplifting or memorable. Instead, they’re using the stage to tell classmates why their religion is better than everyone else’s. It’s utterly disrespectful to everyone in the audience who doesn’t share their views and a sign that, regardless of GPA, they really haven’t learned the most important lessons about humanity during high school.
If we were talking about any religion other than Christianity here, maybe that would be evident to everyone else. But Christian privilege allows certain people to get away with anything.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)