School officials with Provost Academy, an online, public charter school in South Carolina, invited Mariah Kirby, the school’s Student of the Year, to give a speech at her graduation ceremony this year (which just happened on June 9). Told she could address “anything” in her speech, Mariah chose to address a topic appropriate for the occasion: having the courage and drive to accomplish your dreams. Being a professing Christian, Mariah also desired to include some wisdom from Solomon on the topic. Namely, she desired to quote Proverbs 13:4, which states: “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.”
Unfortunately, school officials censored the quote, telling Mariah she could not “use a religious quote because we are a public school.” ADF quickly responded, sending a demand letter to the school explaining that this restriction violated Mariah’s First Amendment right to free speech, and threatening legal action if the school did not change course. To their credit, school officials responded positively, informing us the same day we sent the demand letter that Mariah would be permitted to include the quote from Proverbs in her speech.
Contrary to what groups like the ACLU, Freedom from Religion Foundation, and others of their ilk would have you believe, school officials may not deem graduation ceremonies religious free zones. The First Amendment simply does not permit such a rule. Rather, a student’s speech at a graduation ceremony is their private speech, not the school’s, and any restrictions placed on that student’s speech must comply with the full protections of the First Amendment. And one of those critical protections is a prohibition on religious viewpoint discrimination, which is precisely the First Amendment violation Provost Academy officials were guilty of.
After receiving ADF’s letter, Provost Academy officials did the right thing. We hope other school districts will follow their example by allowing student speakers to include religious expression in their graduation speeches. Schools need not give in to the fear and intimidation campaigns of groups like the ACLU when it comes to religious speech at graduation ceremonies and, more importantly, they must comply with the requirements of the First Amendment when it comes to regulating student speech.