A Christian litigation group is accusing the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of unfairly putting pressure on a Florida school district to remove free religious speech at graduation ceremonies.
The ACLU is trying to convince the Duval County School Board to change its policy on student speech content after a controversial presentation by a class valedictorian who urged students to seek Jesus Christ. In response, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) – a legal alliance that defends the right to speak the "Truth" – sent a letter to the school district on Friday, explaining that a precedent court case already provided the student the right to say what they did.
"A student's First Amendment rights don't end when commencement exercises begin," explained ADF litigation counsel Jeremy Tedesco in a statement. "A federal court affirmed the school board's graduation speech policy in 2001, which respects the First Amendment rights of students at graduation ceremonies. It's ridiculous that the ACLU continues to hound the school board, attempting to force them to adopt a policy that impermissibly restricts private student speech."
As high schools came to a close this year, the issue of religious content during graduations became a strong topic, especially for the ACLU and other civil liberties groups.
ACLU attorneys filed a lawsuit against the Tangipahoa Parish School District in Louisiana this past Wednesday over an alleged teacher-led prayer at the graduation ceremonies. The litigation marked a record six religious freedom lawsuits against the school system.
In mid-May, ACLU lawyers put pressure on six high schools within the Ouachita Parish School District, also in Louisiana, trying to overturn a student-wide vote to have a student-led prayer before graduation.
The latest actions by the ACLU in Florida stem from a 20-minute speech given in May by Shannon Spaulding, the Class of '07 valedictorian for Samuel W. Wolfson High School in Jacksonville, who mentioned God several times in her address in addition to pleading with the audience to accept Christ into their lives.
"The best thing I can offer you tonight, my former classmates and fellow graduates, is to tell you how you can plan and know for sure that you will end up safe and victorious at the end of your earthly life," explained Spaulding during her graduation speech. "I want to tell you that Jesus Christ can give you eternal life in Heaven."
ACLU representatives have now insisted that the school district censor that type of speech from future graduations, but ADF has detailed that the policy already had precedent from a federal court ruling, Adler v. Duval County School Board, which supported Spaulding's free speech rights.
"There is nothing unconstitutional about the school's best and brightest student acknowledging God in her valedictory speech," added Tedesco. "It is unfathomable that the ACLU would actually try to force school officials to censor the valedictorian when a federal court has already affirmed that a valedictory speech is a private message of the student and not school-sponsored. We hope the Constitution and common sense will prevail at the Duval County Public Schools."
School officials have reportedly become more open to allowing religious expression in recent years. Several have changed their policies regarding graduations, including a school in Arkansas that allowed a youth minister to address the school body as speaker and a Michigan school that allowed its choir to sing "The Lord's Prayer" in honor of a deceased student.