A South Carolina high school has reversed course and is now allowing its student of the year to cite a Bible verse in her graduation speech Saturday.
Provost Academy South Carolina, an online public charter school, had previously told Michal "Mariah" Kirby, 16, that she could not use Proverbs 13:4 in her speech. But after receiving a letter from the Alliance Defense Fund, which argued that school officials were violating her First Amendment rights, the school gave Kirby the green light to "deliver her speech as written."
"Public schools should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas, and that includes individual student expression contained in a graduation speech," said ADF Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco in a statement Friday. "School officials have wisely decided to allow Mariah to include the proverb, and we hope other schools will follow their example in acting quickly to respect the constitutionally protected rights of their students."
Kirby was selected to deliver a speech at the June 9 graduation ceremony after being named student of the year. She completed high school in three years and is the first graduate from Provost Academy who started there as a freshman.
According to ADF, school officials did not place any content limitations on her speech and told her it could be about "anything."
She emailed a draft of her speech to school officials on May 31 but in a reply email, officials told her she had to remove the sentence stating "Proverbs 13:4 says 'The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.'"
They told Mariah she could not "use a religious quote because we are a public school," according to ADF.
ADF argued in a letter to the school that their ban on the use of the proverb constitutes viewpoint discrimination.
"Mariah's speech addresses a topic that is commonly addressed at graduation ceremonies: having the courage and drive to chase your dreams. Mariah's speech expresses her religious perspective on this topic through her quotation of Proverbs 13:4. Censoring this religious reference from Mariah's speech violates her First Amendment rights," the legal group asserted.
The letter was delivered Monday and the school responded immediately the same day, saying Kirby could include the Bible verse in her speech.
Kirby is delivering her speech along with the school's valedictorian and salutatorian.