Michigan Principal: ‘Not Appropriate’ to Mention Jesus in Valedictory Speech

A Michigan high school principal informed the senior class valedictorian it was “not appropriate” for her to mention her faith in Jesus Christ in her speech on June 6.

Hillsdale High School principal Amy Goldsmith reviewed the first draft of Elizabeth Turner’s valedictory address and objected to the paragraphs in which the senior discussed her relationship with Jesus Christ and its significance for her future.

A letter sent to Goldsmith on Wednesday by First Liberty Institute, which represents Turner, alleges the principal attempted to “censor the religious expression in Ms. Turner’s graduation speech.”

BREAKING: Today, we sent a letter to the principal at Hillsdale High School demanding that she allow a graduating senior, Elizabeth Turner, reference her faith in her valedictorian speech. LEARN MORE » https://t.co/cH5X9MccbEpic.twitter.com/877ogwJk61

— First Liberty Institute (@1stLiberty) May 27, 2021

The letter referred to Goldsmith’s review of Turner’s speech through Google docs and states the student originally wrote in her address:

For me, my future hope is found in my relationship with Christ. By trusting in him and choosing to live a life dedicated to bringing his kingdom glory, I can be confident that I am living a life with purpose and meaning. My identity is found by what God says and who I want to become is laid out in scripture.

Whether we want to admit it or not, not one of us can be certain of how our lives will unfold, but we do know that trials will come. The reality of this is that we face an unpredictable future, and while we are making all these plans to prepare, ultimately none of us are promised tomorrow, making it all the more important to make today count.

“On May 24, 2021, you highlighted these two paragraphs and commented,” the letter continued, quoting Goldsmith:

This is better and you fixed the language, but you are representing the school in the speech, not using the podium as your public forum. 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. I know this will frustrate you, but we have to be mindful of it.

“Your previous remarks criticized Ms. Turner mentioning anything associated with death and living a meaningful life, commenting that ‘a commencement ceremony is literally about new beginnings, not endings,’” First Liberty observed. “The above paragraph is Ms. Turner’s modified version.”

According to the letter, in response to Goldsmith’s comments, Turner replied via email, “I read your comments and unfortunately I don’t think I would be able to deliver a genuine speech under those circumstances.”

“She expressed that she wants to call people to a life of ‘purpose and meaning and a call to action to live a life well,’” First Liberty continued. “You responded in part, ‘While there is a degree of freedom to the content of your speech, there are also considerations of what the content and message should be at a commencement celebration and it’s [sic] appropriateness for the audience.’”

In its legal analysis, First Liberty stated:

Student graduation speeches constitute private speech, not government speech, and private speech is not subject to the Establishment Clause. Contrary to your statements that religious sentiments are “not appropriate for a speech in a school public setting,” Ms. Turner’s statements do not transform into government speech simply because they are delivered in a public setting or to a public audience.

“Hillsdale High School must comply with the law by allowing private student religious expression during graduation,” the law firm stated. “By doing so, it will teach students that the government should treat religion neutrally.”

“Too often, we have seen well-meaning school officials who think 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 and Free Exercise Clauses,” First Liberty concluded. “We request that you allow Elizabeth Turner to express her private religious beliefs at the graduation ceremony on June 6, 2021.”

The letter asks Goldsmith to confirm her agreement to the request by Friday.

Dr. Susan Berry