The Billings Outpost

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When religion, schools collide, everybody loses

A legal battle over a valedictory speech that nobody heard is moving to a higher court.

Billings attorney Bill O’Connor, who is running for the new District 13 Court judgeship, has filed an appeal with the Montana Supreme Court over the case of Renee Griffith. You may remember her: She was the senior at Butte High School who was not allowed to deliver her valedictory speech because she refused to delete references to “God” and “Christ.”

She claimed that the school district discriminated against her because of her religious beliefs. When her claim before the Montana Human Rights Bureau was denied, she sued in 13th District Court in Yellowstone County.

In February, District Judge Gregory Todd ruled against her, finding that she had not been a victim of discrimination because school district policies prohibiting religious speech during graduation ceremonies applied equally to all student speakers.

“A high school graduation ceremony is not intended to be a forum for expression of individual student religious views,” he wrote.

Judge Todd ended his ruling with a quotation that was particularly grating on the Griffith family: He quoted Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which begins, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” It was as if the judge was flaunting his own liberty to quote Scripture while denying the same liberty to a high school student.

Mr. O’Connor is not some zealot who believes in obliterating the line between church and state. He agrees that school districts have the right to require students to submit valedictory speeches in advance to school officials. He agrees that those speeches should not be prayers, and they should not proselytize.

He even agrees that courts were right to rule against Brittany McComb, whose valedictory in Henderson, Nev., was cut off in mid-speech by school officials who thought she was proselytizing. The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group whose president, John Whitehead, occasionally has had columns appear on this page, filed suit on her behalf, arguing that school officials “sought to censor her speech, coerce her into giving a different speech in violation of her conscience, and interfere with and censor the delivery of her speech, all based upon her religious belief and viewpoint.”

Ms. McComb’s mistake was that she tried to give a speech that school officials already had told her to change, Mr. O’Connor said. Under their powers to act in place of parents, school districts can demand to see valedictory speeches in advance, he said. Even the American Civil Liberties Union sided with the school district in that case, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

But Ms. Griffith stuck by her principles, Mr. O’Connor said, and refused to give a watered-down speech. As prepared, her speech by no means amounted to proselytizing, he argues. According to the court order, the controversial remarks included two references to the deity: “I didn’t let fear keep me from sharing Christ and His joy with those around me,” and “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.”

Such personal expressions of belief are clearly protected by the First Amendment, Mr. O’Connor says, just like any other student expression of a personal philosophy or belief that helped pave the way to academic success. “Christianity is not an evil word,” he said.

The battle over God’s place in government-run institutions is as old as the United States. The Texas Board of Education recently voted to remove Thomas Jefferson from a list of political philosophers whose thoughts and deeds have influenced revolutions. President Jefferson’s apparent offense: Shortly after his election, he wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association praising the First Amendment for “building a wall of separation between church and state.”

Except when he was in campaign mode, Mr. Jefferson was an indifferent churchgoer who edited his own version of the New Testament to omit references to miracles and Resurrection. During his presidency he declared no national days of prayer or thanksgiving, and he believed that the triumph of science would obliterate political divisions within the country. Guess he never heard of global warming.

Jefferson was my kind of guy. As readers of this irregularly filled space may recall, I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church that regarded Christmas, Easter, the addition of “one nation under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and in-school recitations of The Lord’s Prayer all as unscriptural, bordering on blasphemous.

That may sound extreme, but listen to the judges. In a recent case, the 9th Circuit Court ruled against an atheist who sought to bar the Pledge of Allegiance from schools. “In doing so,” the court wrote, “we find the Pledge is one of allegiance to our Republic, not of allegiance to the God or to any religion.”

Casual references to God to promote secular aims were exactly what my church opposed. Our consolation was believing that most of the self-righteous defenders of government-backed religious observances would wind up in Hell.

But I have never believed that the Constitution protects me from having to hear a high school student say that faith in God helped make her a better student. Nor can I fathom a recent court ruling in Washington state upholding a school superintendent’s decision barring a graduation performance of “Ave Maria” for fear it would offend the irreligious (Mr. Whitehead asks, Would “Stairway to Heaven” be banned under such a rule?).

And I can’t watch the online video of Brittany McComb giving her abortive speech without rooting against the school officials who pulled the plug on her and rooting for the students who booed their decision.

Jefferson once said that he was not disposed to seek religion outside of “the dictates of my own reason and feelings of my own heart.” Renee Griffith’s academic achievements earned her the right to tell the rest of us about the dictates of her reason and the feelings in her heart. Depriving her of that right lessens both her freedom and mine.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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