(CN) – A Montana high school violated its valedictorian’s free-speech rights by forbidding her from mentioning God and Christ in her graduation speech, the Montana Supreme Court ruled.
Renee Griffith was one of several valedictorians for Butte High School’s 2008 class, and she planned to make three direct references to God in a joint speech she would deliver with another valedictorian.
After rehearsing the speech, however, the district superintendent, Charles Uggetti, forbade Griffith from making the religious references. Griffith refused to change the references from “Christ” and “God” to “my faith,” and she was banned from speaking at the ceremony.
Griffith sued Butte School District No. 1, Uggetti and principal John Metz for violations of her rights to freedom of speech and religion.
The trial court ruled in the school district’s favor, but the Supreme Court judges ruled that while Griffith’s right to freedom of religion was not violated, her right to free speech was. The justices also directed the district court to dismiss Uggetti and Metz as individual defendants on remand.
“The school district violated Griffith’s constitutional right to freedom of speech when it imposed a non-neutral, viewpoint-based limitation on the content of her valedictory speech,” Justice Patricia Cotter wrote for the majority.
Since the school issued a disclaimer, and because Griffith prefaced her statements with “I learned” or “my faith,” the justices wrote that no one observing the graduation would think the school was endorsing her remarks.
Cotter also noted that Griffith did not reference the use of illegal drugs, and the brief religious reference would not have disrupted the ceremony.
The court dismissed Griffith’s claim that right to freedom of religion was violated.
“Nothing before this court indicates that either that Griffith’s religious faith proscribes delivering a speech devoid of personal religious expression,” Cotter wrote. “Griffith’s personal belief that she could not speak without mention of God and Christ during her speech is not equivalent to a mandate by her religious faith that she do so.”
Justice William Leaphart issued a dissenting opinion, writing that the school district was not unreasonable as “school administrators walk this Constitutional tightrope.”
“In demanding that there be no sectarian religious references, it was properly imposing content-basted restrictions,” Leaphart wrote. “It had no other means of preventing the coerced participation in this “sharing” of a sectarian religious experience.”