A conservative legal firm is accusing a Pennsylvania school district of “forcing a student to alter her personal graduation remarks to remove any religious viewpoint” — something that the First Liberty Institute said is a violation of the Constitution.
The law firm sent a letter to Beaver Area School District in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, detailing purported grievances over a recent commencement speech by a graduate named Moriah Bridges.
Bridges, who was senior class president at Beaver High School, was reportedly asked to offer the closing exercise during her June 2 commencement.
But according to First Liberty, Superintendent Dr. Carrie Rowe forced her to “remove all religious references” from the text of her address, including a sectarian prayer. A rough version of the contents of the students speech was shared with Faithwire on Tuesday:
“Please bow your heads for a closing word of prayer. Heavenly Father, thank you for your immeasurable blessings, for the opportunity to gather today and for the education we’re so blessed to have received here.
We thank you for the lives of everyone who has contributed to this moment: those of our parents for their unending love and support, of our coaches and mentors for the effort and guidance they’ve given us, and of our teachers for the lessons that they’ve taught us and the values that they’ve instilled in us.
Wherever our futures might lead us today, help us to find not only knowledge, but the spirit of wisdom and revelation. I pray that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened, that we would know the hope to which we have been called. I pray that every one of us would know truth and justice.
Lord, surround us with grace and favor everywhere we go. Soften our hearts to teach us love and compassion, to show mercy and grace to others the way that you showed mercy and grace to us, even to the ultimate sacrifice. Help us to love our brothers and our sisters deeply. Lead us to bless them. Make us selfless. Make us just. Make us successful people, but more than that, make us good people. Amen.”
The version that Bridges ended up delivering before her fellow students, though, was quite different, with the graduate announcing at the start of the amended address that she was told was precluded from praying, before going on to deliver an inspirational speech.
Watch her comments below:
Bridges said in a statement issued to Faithwire that she was “shocked” when she was told that her personal remarks were a violation of the law and that she couldn’t appeal to her “Christian identity” to express her beliefs with her fellow students.
“I hope the school district will realize their mistake and make sure future students never have to go through this again,” she said.
Jeremy Dys, deputy general counsel for First Liberty, hit back at Beaver Area School District as well, accusing the school of teaching students to hide their religious beliefs in public and proclaiming that the district’s actions “fail the test of the First Amendment.”
“School districts need to remember that students retain their religious liberty as they walk through the schoolhouse gates and all the way through the graduation ceremony,” Dys told Faithwire.
Rowe released a statement of her own on Tuesday, describing Bridges as a “good student and gifted athlete” who was a “natural choice to express gratitude on behalf of her fellow students to those who have shaped their lives to this point.”
While Rowe said that a “strong value system” is an excellent life lesson to instill in children, she added that anyone who speaks at graduation knows full-well that his or her speech will be reviewed in advance. A prayer-themed address, she said, was unacceptable.
“In Moriah’s case, the district could not approve a speech written as a prayer, but did approve a second version that she submitted,” Rowe wrote. “As superintendent, I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and of this commonwealth.”
She went on to say that the district received legal advice stating that prayers — even student-led prayers — are not permitted at graduation ceremonies. Rowe added, “I cannot choose which laws to follow.”
First Liberty is asking school officials, though, to admit wrongdoing and to set up a meeting with the law firm to discuss methods of protecting student speech and religious expression in the future. It’s unclear if such a meeting will happen.