Public schools can require that students’ graduation speeches remain religiously neutral, a federal appeals court has held.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled May 29 that a graduating senior in Colorado had no constitutional right to preach during her remarks at commencement.
Lewis Palmer High School near Colorado Springs required all students speaking at graduation ceremonies to have their speeches approved ahead of time. Valedictorian Erica Corder submitted a speech for review that made no mention of religion, but then at the ceremony she delivered a short sermon.
“We are all capable of standing firm and expressing our own beliefs, which is why I need to tell you about someone who loves you more than you could ever imagine,” Corder said. “He died for you on a cross over 2,000 years ago, yet was resurrected and is living today in Heaven. His name is Jesus Christ. If you don’t already know Him personally I encourage you to find out more about the sacrifice He made for you so that you now have the opportunity to live in eternity with Him.”
For violating school policy, the principal required Corder to apologize in an e-mail distributed after the ceremony. The principal told her to include this line in her statement: “I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did.”
Corder sued, alleging her free speech rights were violated, as well as her freedom of religion and equal protection rights. A federal district court threw out her case last year, and the appeals court has now done the same.
“It’s clear from the facts…that Corder was only required to follow the same religion-neutral policies as the other valedictorians,” Judge Mary Beck Briscoe wrote on behalf of the panel. “She was disciplined for her speech because she did not follow the religion-neutral policy of submitting her speech for prior review. Simply because Corder’s valedictory speech happened to mention her religious views does not support the allegation that she was disciplined for her religious views.” (Corder v. Lewis Palmer School District No. 38)