Lynn v. Sekulow

Lynn v. Sekulow

Don’t Ban Student Religious Speech at Graduations

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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posted April 28, 2009 at 5:49 pm

I do believe that since this case is in California, it is covered by the 9th Circuit Court ruling, Cole v. Oroville Union High School Dist. (2000), which gave the school district the final say on speech content. The principal of the school retained the right to ensure that speeches or any other content of the program at graduation was not “offensive or denominational”. The court concluded that the school district would have violated the establishment clause by allowing the students in question in this case to deliver their desired speeches (they contained religious personal statements). The court said that an “objective observer” would or could believe that the school district approved or endorsed the content of the students’ speech and invocation, and that both should not be delivered at a public school graduation ceremony. This was appealed by the students to the SC which sent it back with no comment. Therefore this ruling stands in any state covered by the 9th Circuit Court. The court relied on both the Lee ruling and the case, Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe. I personally don’t think that a public school graduation ceremony is the proper forum for religious activities or expressions. There are off campus baccalaurate and multiple church forums in which students may exercise this freedom. Prayers and personal religious statements or even dancing to religious music at a ceremony that represents the community as a whole appear simply to be efforts to use tax supported institutions for proselytizing.

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posted April 28, 2009 at 7:58 pm

There has to be a lot more to the song than the casual mention of “God” in order for the school to demand an instrumental version of it. The dancer could just insist on dancing to the second verse of our National Anthem: O thus be it ever when free men shall stand/ Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation/ Blessed with victory and peace may our heaven rescued land/ Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation/ Then conquer we must when our cause it is just/ And this be our motto: In God is our trust/ And the Star-spangled Banner orever shall wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
God Bless America is also often sung at these kinds of events — so the issue is not the mere mention of “God”. The issue, as always, is whether the song, dance, prayer, or whaever implies the endorsement by the school officials of one sectarian faith group over the others…

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posted April 29, 2009 at 7:46 am

If we got rid of public education, we wouldn’t have this unending controversy and our kids would end up smarter to boot. Now that the government is running banks, insurance and mortgage companies, we can expect compulsory attendance at prayer services there, I suppose.

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posted April 29, 2009 at 9:18 am

It seems to me as though everyone is making this way too complicated. Both Rev. Lynn and Mr. Sekulow both believe in God. God created the Universe and mankind. The education system is trying to prepare the youth for what is needed to survive in today’s world which includes traversing through both political minefields and spiritual minefields. The Bible says to always keep your eyes on Jesus. Why are you, Rev. Lynn, fighting something so trivial? Refocus on Jesus, educate your parishoners accordingly, and help Mr. Sekulow in the fight against evil.
Have a Blessed Day.

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posted April 30, 2009 at 5:47 pm

“God created the Universe and mankind.”
Which god would that be? There are so many. How can you be sure you’ve got the right one?
Maybe there are no gods. What then?
Maybe Rev. Lynn just likes defending everybody’s religious liberty regardless of his personal religious opinions? Imagine that? Someone who values your religious liberty as much as he values his own!
Mr. Sekulow could learn a few things about religious liberty from Rev. Lynn if his bank account wasn’t holding so much sway over his legal opinions.

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N. Lindzee Lindholm

posted December 1, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Just like a speech by a valedictorian at graduation that mentions God, if the expression is student led, the song should not be struck down as unconstitutional. Moreover, the song does not establish a religion and is not a prayer or a religious exercise.

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