U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks ordered Greenville County School District in South Carolina to unconstitutionally restrict free speech and exercise of religion at graduation ceremonies (and even their preparation) after a series of mixed decisions on the issue going back to 2015.
Over time, Judge Hendricks’s decisions seem to have moved from a thoughtful, nuanced approach to a position of judicial overreach and intolerance against religious free speech and exercise. Her 2015 order called religious viewpoints “protected speech” but also included an element of condescension, warning “the historical inclusion of prayer and religious speech at graduations” and “cultural residue of prior practices might continue to color and confuse the application of, even now, constitutionally neutral practices.”
The NCLL always tries to give credit where it is due, and in 2017, Judge Hendricks did note her ruling about a school’s use of a church CAN be constitutional: “This ruling is limited to the specific facts of this case and should not be construed as a bright line rule regarding a school district’s use of a church-owned facility.”
But we find this week’s order troubling. Judge Howe now demands no schoolteacher may review a student’s speech and give feedback if it contains ANY religious content whatsoever. Rather, “if school officials review, revise, or edit a student’s remarks in any way prior to the graduation ceremony, then school officials shall ensure that the student’s remarks do not include prayer.” A teacher couldn’t agree to “review the student messages for time, grammar, and syntax” without also having to strip away the student’s religious free speech.
If a student does pray from the podium, Judge Hendricks believes audience members cannot even be invited by the student to exercise their religion. “No other persons may be asked to participate or join in the prayer, for example, by being asked to stand or bow one’s head. Moreover, in the event that a student’s remarks contain prayer, no school officials shall join in or otherwise participate in the prayer.” We believe Judge Hendricks misapplies the already dubious Lee v. Weisman case and crumbling “Lemon Test” in her overreach.
She also demands previous years’ remarks must be withheld from future speakers: “The district and/or school officials shall not provide copies of student remarks from any prior year’s graduation ceremony to any students selected to make remarks during an upcoming graduation ceremony.”
And finally, despite government schools across America teaching content and music that defame God’s design for marriage, Judge Howe also ordered that the schools in Greenville County “shall not include an obviously religious piece of music as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony.”
The founders of this nation committed their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to establish liberty in this country. Judge Hendricks’s order does not reflect that blood-bought (and repurchased) freedom. This is not free exercise of religion. This is not free speech. Instead, Judge Hendricks requires the government’s systematic enforcement of behavioral atheism on our children. Our students are already expected by government teachers to reject the first words of the first book of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created . . .” May God have mercy on our nation.