Michigan high school valedictorian allowed to reference Jesus in graduation speech

Graduation Anel Alijagic/Shutterstock

A Michigan high school valedictorian will be allowed to reference her Christian faith in her upcoming graduation speech, after being advised by her school principal to omit religious references in her address. 

Elizabeth Turner, one of her class’ valedictorians at Hillsdale High School, is set to deliver a speech to her classmates at their June 6 graduation ceremony. 

Last month, Turner submitted her graduation speech to her principal via Google Docs for review. She referenced her faith in Christ in the speech draft.

“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,” Turner’s original speech read. 

The principal added a comment to this portion of the text in Google Docs, telling Turner her personal religious beliefs were “not appropriate” to share publicly at the public school commencement.

“You are representing the school in the speech, not using the podium as your public forum,” principal Amy Goldsmith wrote. “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.”

A May 26 letter from the First Liberty Institute, a legal organization based in Texas that is dedicated to defending religious freedom, cited the principal’s “attempt to censor” Turner’s speech as a violation of federal law. 

The legal group referenced January 2020 guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, which advises that the content of speeches from students and other graduation speakers, as long as they “retain primary control over the content of their expression,” is not attributable to the school and therefore is not subject to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. 

On Friday, Goldsmith reportedly relented in her decision. According to WILX News, Turner and her lawyer met with the superintendent Thursday and decided the substance of her speech will remain the same.

“I’m grateful I will be able to share my faith with my classmates, and I pray that God uses this situation to advance His kingdom,” Turner told the First Liberty Institute. 

First Liberty Institute declined to comment to CNA when asked if Turner belongs to a specific Christian denomination, and also declined to comment on whether Hillsdale’s principal had replied to the institute’s letter specifically. 

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