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 to the United States Supreme Court.
As previously reported, 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. However, both the U.S. District Court and Second Circuit Court of Appeals 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.
“Public schools should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas. The personal well-wishes of a student at a graduation ceremony do not suddenly become unprotected by the First Amendment just because they mention God,” said ADF attorney David Cortman. “Public school officials have no legitimate basis to shut down a student graduation speaker’s remarks just because they are motivated by the student’s religious, political, or other personal beliefs. It is the student’s speech, not the school’s.”
On Thursday, ADF took A.M.’s case to the United States Supreme Court, noting that the various circuit courts seem to be split on the issue. It advised that the Eleventh Circuit “has held that a student’s graduation speech under these circumstances constitutes private speech, and that religious views expressed in the speech do not violate the Establishment Clause,” but that the Second, Ninth and Tenth Circuits have ruled otherwise. The Establishment Clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
“Silencing religious voices in public schools tells students that faith is something to be ashamed of,” added ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “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. We hope the U.S. Supreme Court will grant review and clarify this important area of law.”
The United States Supreme Court is said to accept only a small percentage of appeals that it receives each year. It has ruled previously about student speech, but confusion still remains across the country.
Photo: Zelman Menashi