Judge rules in favor of school district in Butte speech case

2010-02-26T00:00:00Z 2010-11-19T16:46:33Z Judge rules in favor of school district in Butte speech caseZACH BENOIT Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
February 26, 2010 12:00 am  • 

A Yellowstone County District Court judge ruled this week that a former Butte High student’s civil rights were not violated when school district officials wouldn’t allow her to speak at a 2008 graduation ceremony because she refused to take religious references out of her speech.

In a summary judgment issued Wednesday, Judge Gregory Todd said the decision of Butte School District No. 1 to prevent Renee Griffith, a valedictorian of the 2008 graduating class, from speaking at the ceremonies unless she changed references to “God” and “Christ” in her speech did not violate Montana law or the First Amendment.

“The District’s actions in the case were neither taken in response to Griffith’s personal religious beliefs, as has been asserted by Griffith, nor were they unlawfully discriminatory,” Todd wrote.

He went on to say that it follows a school district policy prohibiting religious reference of any kind during graduation speeches and that the policy is applied evenly to all student speakers in an effort to maintain “neutrality toward religion,” as required by the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“I’m extremely happy that the judge ruled in the school district’s favor,” said Tony Koenig, senior counsel for the Montana School Boards Association, who represented the school district.

The district’s actions were not taken in a hostile manner toward Griffith’s beliefs, Todd wrote, or because of the “substance” of those religious beliefs.

“If anything, contrary to Griffith’s argument otherwise, the District did not prefer the beliefs of any student over the beliefs of others,” Todd said in the judgment. “Such action is in no way discriminatory, and cannot be found to be in violation of either the First Amendment” or Montana law.

Griffith’s attorney, William O’Connor of Billings, said he will take the case to the Montana Supreme Court and plans to file a notice of appeal within the next week.

“The heart of this case is the First Amendment and (Griffith’s) right to express her personal beliefs,” O’Connor said. He added that she was “not speaking on the school’s behalf, not proselytizing or anything that’s been forbidden by the courts” with her speech.

Todd’s decision comes after Griffith filed a lawsuit in 2009 against the school district, Superintendent Charles Uggetti and high school Principal John Metz. When officials asked Griffith — one of 10 valedictorians that year — to make the changes to her speech, she refused and Uggetti and Metz would not allow her to speak at the event, the lawsuit alleges.

According to her lawsuit, six violations of Griffith’s state and federal constitutional rights occurred, including her right to free speech, and of the state Human Rights Act and Government Code of Fair Practices.

School officials asked Griffith to replace the words “Christ and his joy” with “my faith” and “from God with a passionate love for him” with the words “derived from my faith and based on a love of mankind.”

Todd was asked to make a summary judgment on the suit and in December of 2009 heard arguments from O’Connor, who argued that Montana law prohibits public schools from discriminating against enrolled students’ religious views, and Koenig, who said the district acted appropriately because an approval of Griffith’s comments it could have been viewed as an endorsement of her religious views.

The lawsuit was filed in Yellowstone County because that is where O’Connor’s offices are located.

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