Seniors who are part of the graduating classes at six high schools within the Ouachita Parish School District, located in north Louisiana, have voted for fellow students to give a message during this week's class graduation ceremonies – a decision that has put the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on guard.
The ACLU, an organization that provides legal assistance in cases in which it considers civil liberties to be at risk, has expressed its concern that the speakers will include religious themes and prayer within their presentations, and sent a letter last Tuesday to the district advising them to censor the speakers if this should arise.
Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit litigation dedicated to advancing religious freedom, has recently responded to the ACLU, saying that the students have a right to religious themes if they should choose to use them. As long as the school itself is not forcing the students with religious content, students have free speech rights.
"Religious viewpoints cannot be excluded from graduation ceremonies," explained Mathew D. Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, in a statement. "When the message is the choice of the student or the speaker, religious viewpoints, including prayer, are permissible."
To support their claim, the Christian litigation has cited the court case Adler v. Duval County School Board, which they had defended against the ACLU in 2001 and 2002 in multiple courts, resulting in a Supreme Court decision. The case confirmed that students have the right to select a fellow peer to present a message. That student can then give a talk of his or her own choice, regardless of religious content.
In its letter, the ACLU accused the school district of "trying to do an end-run around the Constitution with the so-called student-led prayers."
But Liberty Counsel has encouraged the schools to not be influenced.
"As long as there are graduations, there will be times when prayer and religious messages are part of the ceremonies," added Staver. "The ACLU is wrong – schools must not censor private religious speech from graduation."
To address similar problems, Liberty Counsel has also created the "Friend of Foe" Graduation Prayer Campaign. Through it, they hope to educate schools or, if necessary, begin litigation to guarantee that prayer or other religious views are not stifled during graduations.