A Yellowstone County District Court judge has been asked to decide whether a Butte High School student’s civil rights were violated when she was banned from speaking at graduation ceremonies last year because she refused to remove religious references from her speech.
Judge Gregory Todd heard arguments Monday in the case of Renee Griffith, who filed a lawsuit against Butte School District No. 1 alleging that Superintendent Charles Uggetti and Principal John Metz refused to let her speak at the 2008 graduation ceremony. Uggetti and Metz are also named as defendants in the case, which was filed April 16 in Yellowstone County.
According to the lawsuit, Griffith was one of 10 valedictorians in her class who were offered an opportunity to speak at graduation. But after reviewing her proposed speech, school officials said Griffith could not address the crowd unless she removed references to “God” and “Christ” in her speech.
Specifically, the officials said, Griffith had to change a sentence that read, “I didn’t let fear keep me from sharing Christ and His joy with those around me.”
School officials said he had to replace the words “Christ and His joy” with the words “my faith.”
In another disputed section of her proposed speech, Griffith wrote, “I learned not to be known for my grades or for what I did during school, but for being committed to my faith and morals and being someone who lived with a purpose from God with a passionate love for Him.”
School officials said Griffith had to replace the last eight words of the sentence with the words “derived from my faith and based on a love of mankind.”
Griffith refused to rewrite her speech and was not allowed to speak at the ceremony, according to her lawsuit. The lawsuit alleges six violations of Griffith’s state and federal constitutional rights, including her right to free speech, and violations of the state Human Rights Act and the state Government Code of Fair Practices.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages. Griffith’s attorney, William O’Connor of Billings, said during the hearing before Todd on Monday that a decision in the case is needed to prevent other school districts from making similar decisions in the future.
The hearing was held to consider a motion for summary judgment filed by O’Connor. He argued that there are no disputed facts in the case and the judge should make a legal ruling in Griffith’s favor.
O’Connor said state law prohibits public schools from discriminating against an enrolled student’s religious viewpoint. Griffith’s speech, he said, was not proselytizing to the audience, but simply an expression of her own religious beliefs and how they helped her succeed in school.
The school district has a right to preview students speeches, O’Connor said, but they don’t have a right to “censor a personal viewpoint.”
Tony Koenig, representing the school district on behalf of the Montana School Board Association, argued Monday that school officials acted appropriately in the context of the graduation ceremony. The district must remain neutral on issues of religion, he said, and if the district had approved Griffith’s comments it could have been taken as an endorsement of her religious views.
To allow the religious references in Griffith’s speech, Koenig said, would open up the possibility in the future for students to make more assertive religious speeches at graduation. The only way to avoid such a possibility is to strictly control student speeches and not allow any religious references at a graduation ceremony, he said.
Todd questioned both attorneys extensively during the hearing and said he would issue a written decision later.