Who is Elizabeth Turner? Michigan valedictorian barred from mentioning Jesus Christ in speech
First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit Christian conservative legal organization based in Plano, Texas, sent a letter to the principal of Hillsdale High School, Michigan, demanding that a graduating senior be allowed to reference her faith in her valedictorian speech. The valedictorian has claimed that her high school principal is preventing her from including comments about her belief in Jesus Christ during her in the upcoming graduation ceremony on June 6, 2021.
Allegedly, the principal Amy Goldsmith censored the senior saying, “... You are representing the school in the speech, not using the podium as your public forum. We need to be mindful about the inclusion of religious aspects. These are your strong beliefs, but they are not appropriate for a speech in a school public setting. I know this will frustrate you, but we have to be mindful of it.”
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Who is Elizabeth Turner?
The high school senior, as per the letter, wrote in her speech, “For me, my future hope is found in my relationship with Christ. By trusting in him and choosing to live a life dedicated to bringing his kingdom glory, I can be confident that I am living a life with purpose and meaning. My identity is found by what God says and who I want to become is laid out in scripture.”
After receiving principal Amy Goldsmith’s feedback on May 24, Turner wrote an email to her saying, “I read your comments, and unfortunately, I don't think I would be able to deliver a genuine speech under those circumstances.” First Liberty claims that Goldsmith responded with, “While there is a degree of freedom to the content of your speech, there are also considerations of what the content and message should be at a commencement celebration and it’s [sic] appropriateness for the audience.”
In its letter to school officials, First Liberty called this action “unconstitutional censorship of religious speech.” “Graduation is a time for celebration, not censorship,” said Keisha Russell, Counsel for First Liberty Institute. “Students retain their constitutional rights to freedom of expression from elementary school all the way through the graduation ceremony. All public schools should protect the private religious expression of their students.” First Liberty quoted Russell's words in a subsequent tweet about sending the letter to the principal "demanding" that Turner be allowed to "reference her faith in her valedictorian speech.
BREAKING: Today, we sent a letter to the principal at Hillsdale High School demanding that she allow a graduating senior, Elizabeth Turner, reference her faith in her valedictorian speech. LEARN MORE » https://t.co/cH5X9MccbE pic.twitter.com/877ogwJk61— First Liberty Institute (@1stLiberty) May 27, 2021
First Liberty Institute argued in its letter that student graduation speeches constitute private speech, not government speech, explaining that private speech is not subject to the Establishment Clause.
The First Amendment's Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” This clause not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion over non-religion or non-religion over religion.
“Contrary to your statements that religious sentiments are ‘not appropriate for a speech in a school public setting,’ Elizabeth’s statements do not transform into government speech simply because they are delivered in a public setting or to a public audience,” the letter from First Liberty said.