School Agrees to No Longer Censor Religious Yearbook Entries

May 11, 2004

ACLU Settles Case On Behalf Of Christian Valedictorian

DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced today that an out-of-court settlement has been reached between the 2001 Stevenson High School valedictorian and the Utica Community Schools over the censorship of her entry for the school’s 2001 yearbook. The student’s yearbook entry had been deleted from the yearbook because it contained a passage from the Bible.

“While it is true that schools may not constitutionally promote religion, they also must be very careful not to suppress the private religious expression of their students,” said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director, who represented Abbey Moler, the Sterling Heights student. “This was a case where a high school had created a forum for student expression, yet censored a student’s speech because it was religious in nature."

Ms. Moler was valedictorian of Stevenson High School’s class of 2001. She and a handful of other high achieving graduates were profiled in a section of the yearbook that listed the students’ activities and the colleges they planned to attend. In addition each student was invited to share some words of wisdom or advice to pass on to the rest of the school.

In previous years, students’ entries in the “wants to pass on” section ranged from serious advice to humorous tidbits. For example, one student wrote, “I’ll never grow old, I’ll never die, and I’ll always eat oatmeal.” Another student’s entry was simply, “One word: Plastics.”

Ms. Moler, a devout Christian, submitted a bible verse that she found meaningful.  Her yearbook entry was meant to read:

I would like to share a favorite verse that shapes my life and guides me from day to day: 

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jeremiah 29:11 (New International Bible).

 When the yearbook was published, Ms. Moler’s entry had been omitted. When she and her parents complained, they were told that the school could not publish the entry because it was religious.

"My personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the foundation of who I am, and the publication of my verse is critical in preserving student expression and First Amendment rights,” said Ms. Moler, who is studying to become a teacher. “I received a wonderful education from the Utica Community Schools and now that I’m entering the teaching profession, I wanted to do my part in maintaining the excellence of public education.”

The ACLU and the school district were able to negotiate a settlement without the need to file a lawsuit. The terms of the settlement include the following:

  • The district will place a sticker with Abbey’s original entry in the copies of the 2001 yearbook on file with the school; 
  • The district has instructed the Stevenson High School yearbook staff not to censor entries in the “Wants to Pass On” section solely because they contain religious or political speech that others might find offensive; 
  • The district recently provided and will continue to provide in-service training and advice to school staff on free speech and religious freedom issues that arise in schools; 
  • The district will write a letter of regret to Abbey about the failure to include her entry in the yearbook.

Click here to see a copy of the yearbook page.

Click here to see a copy of the original ACLU letter to the school district.