No sermons at graduations, FFRF chastises Miami school superintendent

A religious person giving a speech with an ASL interpretor

School district superintendents shouldn’t be sermonizing at graduation ceremonies, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is admonishing the Miami school district.

A concerned Miami-Dade County Public Schools community member has informed the state/church watchdog that on June 8, Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho preached and promoted his personal religious beliefs to students, parents and community members during the 2021 Miami Northwestern Senior High School graduation ceremony. Carvalho delivered a passionate speech that included preaching and many references to his personal religious beliefs:

For you are not a mistake, you are God’s masterpiece on Earth. You shall not squander your opportunity of life. From that first very magical moment when God whispered life into your soul and your heart began to beat and your eyes opened and you said, “I am here. I am a queen. I am a king.” . . . I also know that you are well grounded in your souls. You respect God above all. . . . So let me close with three prayers, three wishes, three thoughts. For none of you is an island unto yourselves. With God’s blessing, you shall live fantastic lives. So let me say, may you walk 1,000 miles, may you cross 1,000 deserts. If you take no one with you on that journey, you will get nowhere. May you climb 1,000 mountains. If you do not elevate someone from darkness to light, you shall not reach your own mountaintop. May you swim 1,000 oceans, no matter how treacherous, how dangerous. If you do not save, if you do not rescue someone, from the years of oppression and depression, you shall not save yourselves, but I know you. You shall walk and race and run and climb and swim and take people with you. That is your destiny. That is God’s command. That is your future, for I know you. I have met you. You are the great Class of 2021, and God bless you and congratulations.

It is a violation of the Establishment Clause for a public school superintendent to endorse a religious message to students, FFRF reminds the school district.

“The Supreme Court has recognized that ‘families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family,’” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to the legal counsel for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “The same is true of district administrators.”

Furthermore, FFRF adds, the Supreme Court has continually struck down expressions of religion at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations. School officials may not deliver religious messages or invite a student, teacher, faculty member or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation or benediction at a public high school graduation. And it makes no difference how many students want prayer or wouldn’t be offended by preaching at their graduation ceremony. As the Supreme Court has stated: “Fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

FFRF emphasizes that as a district administrator Superintendent Carvalho is tasked with ensuring constitutional compliance in the district but instead has used his position to promote his religion to district students and the community at large. His assertion that “you respect God above all” undeniably turns any nonbelieving student, staff member, parent or community member into an outsider. Nonreligious Americans make up the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification — 35 percent of Americans are non-Christians, and this includes the more than one in four Americans who now identify as religiously unaffiliated.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools, FFRF insists, must take immediate action to ensure that its students’ rights of conscience are being protected by refraining from promoting religion again.

“Superintendent Carvalho needs to be reined in. He inappropriately imposed his personal religious notions on a diverse community, on an occasion that is supposed to celebrate the pinnacle of 13 years of secular education,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “By doing so, he violated the norms of his position.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,800 members and a chapter in Florida. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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