Jesus Banned From Graduation Speech?

The most important day of a student’s life has come—graduation day!

“Dream big!” some say.

“Climb the ladder of success!”

“Shoot for the moon!”

… Just don’t do it with Jesus.

At least, that was the clear message one Michigan public school gave one of its valedictorians, high school senior Elizabeth Turner.

Hillsdale High School, the only high school in the Hillsdale Community School District, has under 500 students enrolled. Its principal, Amy Goldsmith, recently came under scrutiny for her attempted edit of Turner’s commencement speech, given this past Sunday at Hillsdale’s June 6 graduation.

A screenshot of the draft, written in Google Docs, shows the following comment from Goldsmith: “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.”

Goldsmith’s remarks are in reference to the valedictorian’s open identification as a Christian: “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.”

Goldsmith further advised Turner to omit a less buoyant portion of her speech on “death and tragedy.”


Schooled in Religious Liberty

As a result, on May 24, a brief email correspondence ensued, resulting in an apparent standoff.

Turner responded, standing her ground on both her faith and her approach to mortality: “I read your comments and unfortunately I don’t think I would be able to deliver a genuine speech under those circumstances.” In return, Goldsmith only repeated her counsel on the lack of “appropriateness” of Turner’s “overtly using the words death and tragedy,” avoiding addressing religion altogether.

This subsequently resulted in Turner’s father, lead pastor of the Hillsdale Free Methodist Church, contacting non-profit legal organization First Liberty Institute to represent his daughter. Two days later, Goldsmith received a letter from First Liberty, which stated, “You told her [Turner] that as a valedictorian, she would speak on behalf of the school and the school could not make religious statements.” That, the firm claimed, was “violating students’ rights under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses.”

The letter referenced a U.S. Department of Education document, a result of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), which clarifies that “the speech of students who choose to express themselves through religious means such as prayer is not attributable to the State and may not be restricted because of its religious content.” In addition, it reads: “Student remarks are not attributable to the school simply because they are delivered in a public setting or to a public audience.” It even highlights graduation speakers. In other words, Turner’s graduation speech was within the law. 

Following First Liberty’s intercession, Hillsdale Superintendent Shawn Vondra ensured Turner that her religious remarks would remain untouched for graduation day and sent out an official statement in support of religious liberty. While Vondra asserted that “Goldsmith’s edits were just suggestions,” Turner’s First Liberty counsel Keisha Russell begged to differ, stating, “The school’s comments are there in black and white.” 

The Gospel Censored

 Some might see the involvement of First Liberty as a bit premature. That being said, it is nonetheless clear that educators exist who influence younger generations against the free expression of their faith.

Let’s seriously consider this in terms of the Christian faith. What are the implications of censoring the gospel? It is certainly no small crime to lose your First Amendment rights, but how much more condemning is aiding and abetting in the loss of others’ salvation? People’s eternal lives are at stake—and many don’t even realize it. This is what happens when the gospel gets muzzled or hurriedly glossed over with confetti and cake, with “smooth words and flattering speech” (Romans 16:18).

The Scriptures forewarn, “For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). Describing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, an event typifying the final judgment, the Bible states, “They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built” (Luke 17:28), taking no care of the warning signs until, too late, “it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all” (v. 29).

There are many who disapprove of such bleak acknowledgments, but what if they were to realize that the hardships of today might be the very circumstances used to spur an individual into the eternal kingdom? Turning a blind eye to our current reality only suffocates the very signs meant to make ready a people—not just for adulthood—but for that final judgment.

All too soon, we will reach that tragic day when “the hearts of this people [will] have grown dull[, when] their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed,” when they will not even want “that [Christ] should heal them” (Matthew 13:15). But until then, we have been commissioned to lift up the cross of our Savior to a dying world.

If you want to take up that challenge, start with Pastor Doug Batchelor’s video presentation “What Is the Gospel?

Or take your mission to the next level. Consider a course at the Amazing Facts Center of Evangelism, back in person this summer. There, you can become a graduate of the gospel truth!

Kris W. Sky
Kris W. Sky is a writer and editor for Amazing Facts International and other online and print publications.
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