8th Grade Student's 'God Bless' Grad Speech Ruling Needs Rehearing, Says ADF

Attorneys for a former New York 8th-grade student have asked the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to weigh in on a three-judge panel's ruling against a New York 8th-grade student who wanted to include a religious blessing at the end of her graduation speech.

The Alliance Defending Freedom legal group announced Monday that it had filed the "petition for rehearing en banc" last week that seeks to overturn the Second Circuit panel's ruling, which approved the censorship of the student. Co-counsel David Gibbs originally filed the case, A.M. v. Taconic Hills Central School District, in 2010.

"Public schools should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas. The personal well-wishes of a student are no different just because they mention God," said Senior Counsel David Cortman. "Public school officials have no legitimate basis to shut down personal speech just because it has a religious reference."

The Taconic Hills Central School District prohibited the 8th grade class co-president from offering the blessing, in which she planned to express her hope that "God would bless and keep" her classmates as they moved on to high school. School officials thought her words, as written, "sounded 'too religious,'" ADF stated.

The student's brief closing remarks echoed Numbers 6:24-26 and read, "As we say our goodbyes and leave middle school behind, I say to you, may the Lord bless you and keep you, make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace."

"Silencing religious voices in public schools tells students that faith is something to be ashamed of," said Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. "The First Amendment does not allow public schools to exclude students of faith from fully participating in important events, like graduation, by requiring them to put a lid on their expressions of faith."

The petition argues that the school district is violating the student's freedom of speech. It also argues against the panel's notion that a religious blessing has no "secular analogue" by pointing out that "everyone who has ever browsed the racks of a Hallmark store knows that both secular and religious expressions of good will abound in our society."

ADF attorneys explain in the petition that the "Supreme Court established long ago that religious principles do not 'taint' expressions of good will 'in a way that other foundations for thought or viewpoints do not.'" They note that, contrary to the school district's suggestion, mere concerns about violating the First Amendment's Establishment Clause do not provide "a 'get-out-of-jail free card'" that enables school districts to do whatever they like.

Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the largest legal organizations in the United States championing religious freedom rights, changed its name and logo from Alliance Defense Fund last year.

"Our mission remains the same – defending religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family. Only our name has changed," ADF President, CEO, and General Counsel Alan Sears stated last July. "The change is to help more people easily understand the work that we do and why it matters."

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