HELENA — A Butte High School valedictorian was unconstitutionally banned from speaking at her graduation because she refused to remove the words "God" and "Christ" from her speech, the Montana Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The court ruled 6-1 that school officials violated Renee Griffith's rights to free speech and to freedom of religion under the U.S. and Montana constitutions.
Griffith was one of 10 valedictorians graduating from Butte High School in May 2008. She planned to give a speech with religious references at the graduation ceremony, including the sentence "I didn't let fear keep me from sharing Christ and His joy with those around me."
But in the days leading up to the ceremony, school district superintendent Charles Uggetti told Griffith she had to remove the references to "God" and "Christ" because religious references were not allowed in graduation speeches.
Griffith and her father met with Uggetti, who cited a policy that says the school district has ultimate control over the content of the ceremony and that "the district may not prefer the beliefs of some students over the beliefs of others, coerce dissenters or nonbelievers or communicate any endorsement of religion."
Griffith told Uggetti that she could not speak of what she learned in high school without acknowledging God and Christ, according to the opinion by Justice Patricia Cotter.
Uggetti conferred with principal John Metz, and Metz told Griffith she had to remove the religious references or not speak at all. She refused and was not permitted to give the speech.
Griffith took her case to the Montana Human Rights Bureau, whose investigator said there was no cause to believe she had been discriminated against.
Griffith then filed a lawsuit in district court. The judge ruled the school district's policy was meant to prevent any implied endorsement of religious views by the district, so the prohibition did not violate the First Amendment.
Griffith appealed to the Supreme Court with the aim of vindicating her constitutional rights and did not seek monetary damages, Cotter wrote.
The justices reversed the lower court's decision, ruling that what Griffith planned to say did not fall into any recognized situation where it would be permissible to impose a viewpoint-based limitation on free speech, Cotter wrote.
"We find it unreasonable for the School District to conclude that Griffith's cursory references to her personal religious beliefs could be viewed by those in attendance at the BHS graduation ceremony as a religious endorsement by the School District," Cotter wrote.
Justice William Leaphart wrote in his dissent that he believed it was Griffith's intent to proselytize, and that her speech could be limited because of that.
"In seeking to '(share) Christ and His Joy with those around' her, Griffith was seeking to induce others to join her religious faith. That is, she was proselytizing," Leaphart wrote.
"In demanding that there be no sectarian religious references, (the school district) was properly imposing content-based restrictions," he added.
The court ruled that Griffith could collect attorney's fees and dismissed Uggetti and Metz as individual defendants, saying their actions were as employees of the school district.
HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a former Butte High School valedictorian who was banned from speaking at her graduation because her speech contained religious references.
The Supreme Court on Friday reversed a lower court's ruling that Renee Griffith's civil rights were not violated when school officials refused to let her speak with nine other valedictorians at the 2008 graduation.
Officials reviewed the speech and said she had to remove references to God and Christ. Griffiths refused and she was not permitted to speak.
Supreme Court justices ruled that the officials violated her rights to free speech and to freedom of religion under the U.S. and Montana constitutions.