One Pennsylvania high school graduate defied the alleged orders of her school’s administrators, referring to “Jesus Christ” after she claims she was told to scrub any reference to God from her commencement speech earlier this month.
According to the First Liberty Institute, the conservative law firm representing Moriah Bridges, the student was told by Superintendent Dr. Carrie Rowe that she had to “remove all religious references” from the text of her commencement speech, Faithwire News reported.
First Liberty sent a letter to the Beaver Area School District in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, claiming Rowe infringed on Bridges’ constitutional rights by restricting her speech, which she delivered on June 2.
Bridges’ address was originally in the form of a prayer, in which she would have referred to God as her “Heavenly Father” and “Lord.” But when Bridges received the order from Rowe, she decided to change her address quite a bit, and the new version took some guts to deliver.
At the start of her speech, the Christian student informed attendees she was not allowed to pray from the commencement stage. Bridges then proceeded to deliver a speech similar to her original plan, but she scrubbed her earlier references to her “Lord” and “Heavenly Father,” according to a video of the speech provided by First Liberty.
She expressed thanks for the “blessings” she and her fellow classmates experienced at Beaver High School and thanked her parents and her many teachers, coaches, and mentors for their contributions over the years. But it was a moment of defiance at the end of Bridges’ speech that garnered loud applause from the parents, friends, and fellow graduates gathered at the ceremony.
“I’ve always been a rule follower,” said Bridges, the senior class president. “When they said not to chew gum, I didn’t chew gum. When they said not to use your cellphone, I didn’t use my cellphone. But today, in the spirit of defying expectations, and for perhaps the last time at this podium, I say in the righteous name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”
In a statement shared with Faithwire, Bridges said she was “shocked” the school tried to block her from expressing her “Christian identity” during the graduation ceremony.
“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 at First Liberty, also slammed the Beaver County School District, claiming the administration’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 said.
For her part, Rowe released a statement Tuesday, describing Bridges as “a good student and gifted athlete” and “a natural choice to express gratitude on behalf of her fellow students to those who have shaped their lives to this point.”
However, the superintendent said Bridges knew her speech would have to be approved in advance by school administrators.
“In Moriah’s case,” Rowe said, “the district could not approve a speech written as a prayer, but did approve a second version that she submitted. As superintendent, I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and of this Commonwealth.”
Rowe went on to say she received legal advice from the district’s solicitor, who told her that no remarks — even if delivered by a student — can include religious references.
“Although I can understand why this restriction might upset members of the community,” she said, “I cannot choose which laws to follow.”
First Liberty, though, is asking the school district to admit wrongdoing and is requesting a meeting with administrators to discuss how religious liberty can be protected in the future. It is not yet clear if that meeting will take place.
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