Colorado Mesa University student Karissa Erickson was selected by her peers to speak at a pinning ceremony on May 10, 2018 – but she found that giving a simple speech would be far more complicated than she thought.
The pinning ceremony is a separate festivity for graduates of the university’s nursing program. Days before the ceremony, Erickson was told to submit her prepared remarks to school administrators. She was reportedly not provided any rules for what could or could not be said during her speech. To her surprise, the CMU student was informed she couldn’t give her speech as written.
CMU faculty members objected to Erickson’s mentions of God and Jesus. They were also displeased with the inclusion in her speech of the Scripture verse John 16:33, which says, “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take comfort, I have overcome the world.”
Instead of removing the parts of her speech deemed offensive by CMU faculty, Erickson smartly contacted the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF. The ADF is a non-profit organization headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona that fights for the rights of Americans to freely live out their faith.
In response to Erickson’s call for help, the ADF promptly dispatched a letter to CMU administrators on May 4, 2018. This missive detailed the ADF’s belief that CMU administrators objected to Erickson’s speech as a result of an incident that occurred in 2015. At this time, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, FFRF, opposed CMU for its practice of allowing Gideon Bibles to be handed out to students during the pinning ceremony. Due to the FFRF’s objections, CMU banned this thoughtful gesture.
In the letter, the ADF contended a CMU administrator “made it clear that Miss Erickson had to remove references to Jesus and the Bible verse from her speech, or ‘there will be repercussions. This program will not tolerate it.’ According to her, CMU is just tired of dealing with this and has no more energy to spend towards it.”
Challenging the CMU official’s enigmatic justification for the blatant religious discrimination, the ADF contended the censure “ignored a fundamental First Amendment principle: this speech represents Miss Erickson’s expression as a private citizen. There is a ‘crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect.”
A mere four days after the ADF issued the letter maintaining CMU was infringing on Erickson’s free speech rights and advocating a different outcome, the university overturned its decision. ADF lawyer Travis Barham stated while the institute of higher learning’s initial stance was wrong, he was happy school administrators changed course.
“When they were confronted with what the law required, they quickly backtracked and allowed the student to speak freely,” the attorney said. “I am genuinely impressed the university corrected its actions so quickly.”
CMU spokesperson Dana Nunn responded that university staff attempted “to do the right thing, but made a mistake” when they requested Erickson take out the religious references from her presentation.
“It was a well-intentioned misunderstanding of what was appropriate,” Nunn said. “I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people have their own interpretations of the separation of church and state, and the faculty member that initially asked for the change was just trying to do the right thing, she was just not correct legally.”
The spokeswoman went on to add, “It was a well-intentioned and honest error, but an error nonetheless. As soon as the error came to our attention, we did our best to correct it.”
Barham lamented the regularity of institutes of higher learning get involved in First Amendment controversies.
“This sort of thing pops up with alarming frequency, where university officials come under the mistaken conclusion that the First Amendment requires them to purge all speech of anything that’s religious,” Barham said. “They think they’re fulfilling the commands of the First Amendment, but they’re actually violating it.”
~ 1776 Christian