We live in an age when the religious free speech of many – particularly students in public schools – is being routinely trampled simply because their words may “offend.” In schools across the country, untold numbers of valedictorians and salutatorians are prohibited from articulating a short prayer or giving thanks to Jesus Christ, even if prayer and a relationship with Christ are preeminent themes of their lives.
Such censorship is patently unfair.
These students are told that their words may rub someone in the audience the wrong way, so they are compelled to silence and forced to stifle expressions of faith.
Such was the case in Spencer, Wis., just a few days ago. As the Class of 2005 at Spencer High School gathered for its graduation ceremony last Saturday, the seniors and their families heard the message that Jesus Christ is their hope for the future.
Maybe it wasn’t a message with which everyone in the audience agreed, but it was a message that the speaker earned a right to give as valedictorian of her class. The language was her own and not coerced by a religious leader or school official.
But before she could give that speech, there was a short battle to be fought.
The message was nearly silenced when valedictorian Miriam Cattanach submitted her speech to school officials. She was swiftly informed that any reference to religion, God or Jesus must be expunged.
Thankfully, Miriam and her family are fighters. They contacted the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, which is headed by Mathew Staver. Liberty Counsel has been involved in many similar cases and has helped many students win their rights of religious expression.
Mr. Staver quickly sent off a letter to the superintendent and school principal, informing them that their attempt to censor Miriam’s speech was wholly unconstitutional. (This is a message that a multitude of uninformed school officials need to understand.)
The very next day, Liberty Counsel received a call from the school district’s attorney stating that Miriam would be permitted to give her speech as originally written. Subsequently, when students and family members gathered at the school graduation last Saturday, Miriam imparted the speech that came from her heart.
After challenging her classmates to succeed, Miriam stated: “There is Someone Who can make the journey seem a lot easier. His name is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate source of success, love, laughter, dreams and the future. He is the Creator of the universe who longs to have a relationship with you.”
That may not be popular speech with some, but it is Miriam’s right – and every valedictorian’s right – to make such voluntary statements.
Mr. Staver said, “Students and invited speakers do not shed their constitutional rights when they step up to the graduation podium. Expressing faith in God does not disqualify a student from delivering a graduation message.”
He added, “Being designated as valedictorian or salutatorian is an honor, and students chosen for that honor should be free to share their gratitude to God with their fellow students and family members.”
Mat Staver is also vice president of Law and Policy at Liberty University. He has invited any American high school valedictorian, salutatorian or honored graduate who might be ordered by a school official to refrain from mentioning their faith in Jesus Christ in a public commencement address to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Liberty Counsel will provide representation – free of charge! – to all religious students wanting to preserve their free-speech rights.
This is an important message that I hope Christian parents and students will embrace. There is no need for timidity or apprehension when it comes to voicing the language of faith in the public school. We are not to be sheep who allow our deeply held beliefs and values to be quelled.
Finally, I wish to honor Miriam Cattanach for standing by her convictions. I pray that her example will encourage hordes of Christian young people across this nation to be intrepid ambassadors for Christ in their schools. We must never become weary in well doing!