Smoky Mountains Sunrise

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Holland, Michigan School District Violates Christian Student's Free Speech Rights

Family Group: Holland schools violate Constitution by censoring Christian valedictorian's "life lesson"

Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals: "The First Amendment does not demand a wall of separation between ch
urch and state."

HOLLAND, Mich. -- West Ottawa Public Schools Superintendent Patricia Koeze's censorship of a Christian high school senior's valedictory address -- planned for graduation ceremonies Sunday -- is a "clear, outrageous, and unconstitutional violation of the student's First Amendment free speech rights," a statewide family values group said Saturday.

The American Family Association of Michigan blasted Koeze's censorship of planned remarks by West Ottawa High School valedictorian Jed Grooters, who included quotations from the New Testament book of Corinthians. AFA-Michigan President Gary Glenn, Midland, said Koeze's action "is a clear case of unconstitutional discrimination based on the content of the student's speech, propped up by some obviously very poor legal advice from the school district's attorneys."

"Since the U.S. Supreme Court long ago prohibited school officials from unconstitutionally forcing students to surrender their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door," Glenn said, "Supt. Koeze's heavy-handed intolerance and discrimination toward this student's expression of his Christian worldview is an engraved invitation for a First Amendment free speech lawsuit against the school system for which local taxpayers would have to foot the bill for attorneys fees and damages."

The Grand Rapids Press Saturday reported that Grooters -- a 4.0 GPA student and eight-time varsity athlete who won the sportsmanship award in three different varsity sports this year -- was asked by school officials to give a valedictory address Sunday talking about a "life lesson" he wished to share with fellow students.

But upon submitting a draft of his speech to school officials, Grooters was told he would not be allowed to speak unless he removed his speech's references to the Bible. The student refused, and the matter was referred to Koeze.

According to the Press, Koeze labeled Grooters' comments "a religious speech" and insisted that allowing him to present it during the school's graduation ceremonies would violate the so-called "separation of church and state."

Glenn said the federal Appeals Court which acts on all federal court decisions originating in Michigan has ruled exactly opposite of Koeze's faulty interpretation of the First Amendment.

He cited a April 2006 case in which the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals -- by a vote of 19 to 5 -- upheld a three-judge panel of the court's earlier rejection of the American Civil Liberties Union's claim that a Kentucky courthouse violated the First Amendment by displaying a copy of the Ten Commandments found in the Old Testament of the Bible.

In its ruling, the Sixth Circuit went beyond the specifics of the Kentucky case, issuing a broad statement of the Constitution's original intent, dramatically declaring that religious speech is protected by, not at odds with, the First Amendment.

"The First Amendment does not demand a wall of separation between church and state," the three-judge panel had unanimously ruled in December 2005 in an opinion authored by Senior Judge Richard Suhrheinrich of Williamston, a graduate of Michigan State University-Detroit College of Law and a full-time faculty member at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing.

The Suhrheinrich-authored decision further characterized the American Civil Liberties Union's repeated references to the so-called "separation of church and state" as "extra-constitutional" and "tiresome."

See page 13 of the Court of Appeals panel's December 2005 decision:

"To quote the same Appeals Court that will eventually rule on any free speech lawsuit that results if Supt. Koeze continues to censor Jed Grooters' quotation of the Bible, the superintendent's false claim that the First Amendment requires her to do so is both 'extra-constitutional' and 'tiresome,'" Glenn said. "In fact, the First Amendment requires school officials to both respect and allow Jed to fully practice his First Amendment free speech rights."

Glenn said if the school district refuses to back off its unconstitutional censorship of Grooters' speech Sunday, "Christian legal defense foundations across the country will be waiting in line to provide free legal representation to this courageous, principled young man and his family."

"The question Supt. Koeze and West Ottawa school board members should ponder is how school district taxpayers are likely to feel about being forced to pay attorneys fees and damages when the federal courts reject her blatant violation of Jeb Grooters' First Amendment free speech rights," he said.

The American Family Association of Michigan's mission is to promote and defend traditional Judeo-Christian family values, Glenn said.


The American Family Association of Michigan is asking supporters to contact West Ottawa Schools Superintendent Patricia Koeze to voice their objection to the district's censorship and persecution of Christians:
Supt. Patricia Koeze
Phone: 616-738-5700