Barry, I think the one thing we can agree on is that as long as graduation ceremonies take place across the country, there will be questions – concerns – and ongoing debate about what’s proper and what it not.
What I don’t understand is why some public school officials find it necessary to censor student religious speech – even at graduation.
Even as I write this, we’re working with the parent of an 8th grade student in California who auditioned to perform a tap dance number at her graduation ceremony that will take place in a few weeks. The graduation committee was impressed by her dance and invited her to perform at the ceremony, but they told her that she had to change her song selection or use an instrumental version with no words. The reason? The song mentions God.
We’re working to resolve this matter on behalf of the student and aren’t in a position to disclose more details, but it’s important to point out that students do not lose their freedom of speech at graduation ceremonies. The same principles apply to this situation as to religious content within speeches given by valedictorians and salutatorians. Guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education in 2003 state that, “Where students or other private graduation speakers are selected on the basis of genuinely neutral, evenhanded criteria and retain primary control over the content of their expression, . . . that expression is not attributable to the school and therefore may not be restricted because of its religious (or anti-religious) content.”
While the Guidelines declare that a school may “make appropriate, neutral disclaimers to clarify that such speech (whether religious or nonreligious) is the speaker’s and not the school’s” – schools cannot simply ban any and all references to God in student expression at graduations. Student artistic performances and speeches should be reasonably understood as the student’s own expression rather than speech endorsed by the school. Students should be able to share how their faith has impacted their lives without fear of censorship by school officials. Such student expression is clearly distinguishable from the kind of school-endorsed official prayer struck down in Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992).
Barry, I am sure that you would agree that student performers and speakers should be free from censorship at their graduation ceremonies.
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