A Michigan high school made a “one-time” exception and reversed its request to alter a high school valedictorian’s “very Christianized” remarks for her senior honors night speech after a legal nonprofit wrote a letter urging school officials to respect her free speech rights.
Savannah Lefler, the valedictorian of her 2021 senior class at John Glenn High School in Westland, was selected to deliver a short, pre-recorded speech for the Honors Convocation Ceremony. The address will be recorded on Wednesday to be shown to the families of honor students.
When John Glenn High School requested she take religious content out of her speech, a lawyer with the First Liberty Institute sent a letter Tuesday to the school’s principal, Michael Wegher, urging the school to honor her constitutional rights.
In response to the letter, the high school refused to concede a legal requirement. Still, it allowed a “one-time non-negotiable relinquishment of control," allowing Lefler to deliver her speech with a disclaimer saying the school does not endorse the speech.
In a letter obtained by The Christian Post, the school district’s attorney responded to First Liberty Institute to explain how Lefler’s speech was not “unconstitutionally censored” in that context and said the religious liberty law firm’s legal position was “without any merit whatsoever."
“Nearly half of Ms. Lefler’s draft speech was unmoored from any sort of academic or pedagogical interest related to the School District’s Honors Convocation. Rather, it was an attempt to proselytize at a school-sponsored event, with the School District’s imprimatur. …,” the school district’s attorney, Kevin T. Sutton, wrote in a letter to First Liberty Institute General Counsel Mike Berry.
“Indeed, it is not a speech – it is a sermon,” Sutton’s letter continued.
The attorney noted that though the school district “is under no obligation to deviate from its practice, the School District will permit a one-time, non-negotiable relinquishment of control over Ms. Lefler’s speech.”
When Lefler submitted her speech on May 19 to the school's speech coordinator, Don Loomis, Loomis suggested her address include more content on her school experiences.
Days later, on May 24, Wegher emailed Lefler and said her speech needed to be revised to fit a “non-secular approach."
“I appreciate your desire to speak from the heart and share your beliefs and philosophies with others,” Wegher wrote in the email to Lefler as quoted in First Liberty's June 1 letter. “Unfortunately, we are a public educational institution and must legally abide by the [First Amendment] of the US Constitution. Through past Supreme Court cases, rulings have stated that government institutions, including public schools, cannot favor one religion over any others.”
The principal encouraged Lefler to be “inclusive and respectful” to students of all beliefs since the school has students and staff “who would identify as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindi, Sikh, Jehovah's Witness, atheist, etc.”
“… Those are the perspectives from the legal side, I would also give the following advice from a more social perspective,” the email continued. “We have a diverse student body and staff. It is one of the things I love about the John Glenn community.”
“We must be inclusive and respectful of their beliefs as well,” he added. “With this said, we do need to see a revision that sticks to a non-secular [sic] approach. I am not opposed to thanking God for the great honor bestowed upon you, but we cannot take the approach that is currently laid out in your speech.”
Lefler called the principal for clarification, and he allegedly told her the “very Christianized” section of the speech needed to be changed not to offend people of other viewpoints.
Lefler’s speech encouraged students not to waste their lives, presented the Gospel and shared how trusting in Christ allows one’s purpose to be fulfilled.
“Seeing that man is completely unable to achieve perfection, God made a way for us to be reconciled to Him through the perfect life of Jesus Christ, who is God in flesh,” Lefler’s speech draft read.
“He not only lived perfectly, but he was killed on a cross and took the punishment that humans deserve,” her speech continued. “Then he rose from the dead three days later, thus vindicating His holiness and divinity. This allows us to fulfill our purpose in glorifying God because we can now stand before Him blameless if we repent and trust in Christ and His finished work. May His name be praised forever!”
Lefler’s speech encouraged her classmates to “seek the truth," citing John Piper’s book Don’t Waste Your Life. She argued that the purposes of life reflected by the teachings of Plato, Charles Darwin and other religions are “wrong.”
“The purpose of life is to live a life devoted to Christ,” the draft of her speech read.
The student's speech draft also stated that "man is unholy, bad, and unjust."
"Good is not an arbitrary word that reflects occasional pleasantness," the draft stated, according to the school attorney's letter. "Goodness is a virtue; moral excellence; perfected well doing. But the Bible reveals that 'no one does good, not even one,' and because of this, 'the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth.'"
Lefler’s First Liberty Institute attorneys alleged that the school district’s request to censor her speech violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.
“Too often, we have seen well-meaning school officials thinking they are complying with the Establishment Clause mistakenly go too far and censor the private speech of students, violating students’ rights under the Free Speech Clause,” First Liberty Institute attorneys Berry and Stephanie Taub wrote in the letter.
The school’s attorney responded that the request to alter Lefler’s speech was legal but agreed to allow her to deliver the speech under the condition that the video address has a disclaimer that the expressed views belong to Lefler and not the school.
“We are grateful that Savannah will be allowed to freely express her religious perspective in her remarks,” Taub said in a statement. “[She] is thrilled that she’ll be able to celebrate with her classmates without being censored.”
Taub encouraged other students to stand up for their First Amendment rights.
“May God be glorified in the situation,” Lefler said in a statement. “I’m thankful I will be able to share my faith in Christ with my classmates and pray that this never happens to another student in the future.”
Emily Wood is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org