Craryville, New York — Attorneys representing an eighth grade student who was barred from asking God to bless her classmates during middle school graduation have filed an appeal in federal court.
The student, who is only being identified as A.M. since she is a minor, served as co-president of her eighth grade class at Taconic Hills Middle School in New York. As students were preparing to leave middle school and begin high school, A.M. was to deliver a speech to her classmates. In her address, the girl desired to ask that God would bless those gathered, quoting a Biblical passage from Numbers 6:24-26.
“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,” her speech was to have read.
However, school officials told A.M. that the section of her speech “sounded too religious” and asked her to nix it from the address.
The girl’s family then asked the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to assist with the matter, which resulted in a federal lawsuit.
“Public schools should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas. The personal well-wishes of a student are no different just because they mention God,” stated senior counsel David Cortman. “Public school officials have no legitimate basis to shut down personal speech just because it has a religious reference.”
The case, which was initially filed in 2010, escalated to the 2nd Circuit of Appeals, but a panel of three judges ruled against the student, stating that the school district had “legitimate pedagogical concerns” in seeking not to violate the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.
In filing an appeal, ADF is asking for an en banc review of the case — meaning that it is requesting that a full appeals court panel, usually comprised of approximately ten judges, reconsider the ruling. It argues that many greetings and well-wishes often include references to religion.
“[E]veryone who has ever browsed the racks of a Hallmark store knows that both secular and religious expressions of good will abound in our society,” the petition outlines. “The Supreme Court established long ago that religious principles do not ‘taint’ expressions of good will ‘in a way that other foundations for thought or viewpoints do not.’”
“Silencing religious voices in public schools tells students that faith is something to be ashamed of,” commented ADF senior legal counsel Jeremy Tedesco in a written statement. “The First Amendment does not allow public schools to exclude students of faith from fully participating in important events, like graduation, by requiring them to put a lid on their expressions of faith.”
Many Christian students often face obstacles in referencing their faith in graduation speeches. The federal circuit courts have been divided over the matter, as some believe that the speech is permissible as long as the reference to religion is personal and not perceived as being endorsed by the school.
Photo: Zelman Menashi