Liberty Counsel Kicks Off Its Friend or Foe Graduation Campaign

Apr 22, 2004

Orlando, FL – Liberty Counsel President and General Counsel, Mathew D. Staver, announced the organization’s national “Friend or Foe Graduation Campaign.” Liberty Counsel is a nonprofit litigation, education and public policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the traditional family. Liberty Counsel has hundreds of affiliate attorneys in all 50 states.

Staver described the campaign as follows: “The Friend or Foe Graduation Campaign means that Liberty Counsel will be a friend by providing free legal representation to those schools that take a neutral position regarding the messages presented by students at graduation. However, Liberty Counsel will be a foe of schools that censor the religious viewpoint or content of student speakers. We will be the friend of schools that protect the free speech rights of students, and we will be the foe of those that violate their First Amendment rights.” Staver gave the example of Adler v. Duval County School Board, the case in which Liberty Counsel successfully defended a school board message policy for 8½ years against the ACLU. After two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, the courts upheld the policy that allowed students to vote to have a member of their class deliver a religious or secular graduation message of his or her own choice. Staver also gave the illustration of a small school in New York with 13 graduating seniors. After the ACLU threatened suit if any student delivered a prayer, Liberty Counsel intervened, offering to defend the school at no cost, while also promising to sue the school if officials censored the religious messages. After originally buckling to the ACLU, officials reversed their decision and allowed the students to deliver a message of their choice. The ACLU never filed suit.

The Supreme Court has never banned all religious speech or prayer from graduation. In Lee v. Weisman, the Court recognized that “at graduation time and throughout the course of the educational process, there will be instances when religious values, religious practices, and religious persons will have some interaction with the public schools and their students.” What the Court prohibited is school-sponsored prayer. However, when a student or outside speaker is selected to speak at graduation using neutral criteria such as academic achievement, class office or leadership, the speaker may give a message of his or her own choice, and that message can include religious content. As in the Adler case, schools may also use a neutral message policy, which allows students to present a message on any topic of their choice.

Staver noted that schools ought to remain neutral, neither forcing students to pray nor prohibiting them from praying. When in doubt, remain neutral and allow the speaker to present a message of his or her own choice. This year, Staver stated that Liberty Counsel will aggressively enforce its Friend or Foe Graduation Campaign. “We want to be the friend of schools that protect the rights of students, but we will be a foe of those schools that strip student speeches of their religious content,” concluded Staver.