Valedictorian Elizabeth Turner of Hillsdale High School went by the book in getting her speech approved, only for it to be refused by her school district because expressing her personal religious faith was deemed "not appropriate for a speech in a school public setting." Ultimately, Turner was allowed to give her speech which did reference her Christian faith, but it was not after First Liberty, a legal organization, sent a letter to the school's principal notifying that to refuse Turner was in violation of federal law. Keisha Russell, counsel with First Liberty, spoke with Townhall about the process.
Meanwhile, the media and leftist figures have flocked to promote Paxton Smith, the 18-year-old valedictorian of Lake Highlands High School who went off script from a speech her school had approved to instead rant against a recently passed law in Texas that bans abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected at six weeks. Her speech even claimed, "I cannot give up this platform to promote complacency and peace when there is a war on my body and a war on my rights."
Again, it's worth emphasizing the contrast not only in tone and speech but that Turner went by the rules and the proper channels to get her speech approved.
A case profile of Turner from First Liberty includes the 10-page letter sent to Principal Amy Goldsmith on May 26, 2021. Goldsmith is the principal who told Turner she could not go through with certain parts of her speech.
The relevant part read:
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.
Whether we want to admit it or not, not one of us can be be certain of how our lives will unfold, but we do know that trials will come. The reality is that we face an unpredictable future, and while we are making all these plans to prepare. Ultimately, none of us are promised tomorrow, making it all the more important to make today count.
Principal Goldsmith left a comment in a Google Docs version of the speech that "This is better and you fixed the language, but you are representing the school in the speech, not using the podium as your public forum. We need to be mindful of 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."
An email exchange between Turner and Goldsmith included an email from Turner, which in part read that "For me, my personal future relies on my faith and I also want the freedom to be able to address that in my speech if the opportunity arises."
But the principal doubled down in her email response:
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. When crafting a speech it is important to consider purpose and audience. Your speech has a good thesis, it's the connotations of the words that you can avoid.
The letter from First Liberty, signed by Russell as well as Mike Berry, General Counsel, came two days letter, stating:
Hillsdale High School must comply with the law by allowing private student religious expression during graduation. By doing so, it will teach students that the government should treat religion neutrally. Any perceived danger in students seeing their classmates engaging in religious expression, including prayer, is no greater than the danger in students seeing religion banned from public view... Given your edits to Ms. Turner’s speech and your statements to her during your phone call, you are violating federal law which permits private religious speech at school events.
Too often, we have seen well-meaning school officials who think 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 and Free Exercise Clauses.
We request that you allow Elizabeth Turner to express her private religious beliefs at the graduation ceremony on June 6, 2021. Please confirm that you agree to our request by Friday, May 28, 2021 at 5PM.
On May 27, the school had reversed its decision.
Russell shared that while the school's superintendent ultimately "was willing to issue written guidance in the future about religious speeches," the district's response was "relatively common" in that there was hesitance on acknowledgment.
"We see cases like this often, so it wasn’t uncommon to see this reaction from the school district." While the superintendent was willing to talk and engage, Russell noted he "stopped short of saying this is not what should have happened."
"Most schools do relent after we've publicized what they've done" because "it’s hard to justify it when you do so in the light," Russell explained. "Everybody's willing to justify it when it's in the corners of the school," but then "as [the school] explain[s] why you have to do it, it becomes more and more evident why you shouldn't do it."
Russell emphasized that "there's this sliding scale of accountability of school districts," noting a contrast between Turner's case and the one facing another student and client, Mariah Bridges, where her school did acknowledge and issued an apology. "We thought that was a really great step, owning what they'd done," Russell shared. "No school district wants to admit they're engaging in discrimination" and that "nobody wants to say that, even if it's true," when it comes to this sliding scale.
When it comes to Turner, Russell spoke quite favorably of the graduate. "It's really more commendable now that students who are trying to be transparent about their faith are supported when they stand up for it, particularly in a climate where religious freedom is not really as popular," Russell said. "This is one of the reasons why I love defending students. As a former teacher, it matters so much more for young people to go the extra mile in a crowd of people that may or may not be like this."
Turner ultimately gave her speech at the graduation ceremony on June 6, referencing her Christian faith, as she had intended to. Russell noted there was quite the applause for Turner's speech and that Turner had "a lot of support when she decided she was going to stand up for herself."
The graduation speech is below.