BUTTE - The Montana Supreme Court of Friday sided with a Butte High School valedictorian who was barred from speaking at her 2008 graduation because she made references to God or Jesus in her speech.

In a 6-1 ruling, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court's decision and noted that it was "unreasonable" for school administrators to censor Renee Griffith's religious comments in her speech.

Griffith, 20, told the Montana Standard on Friday afternoon that she was "overjoyed" when she learned of the ruling.

"I'm so relieved, slightly shocked and very thankful," she said when reached by telephone in Springfield, Mo.

Griffith was one of 10 valedictorians graduating from Butte High in May 2008. Her speech included the sentence, "I didn't let fear keep me from sharing Christ and His joy with those around me." But days before graduation, both Principal John Metz and Superintendent Chuck Uggetti told her she had to remove the references from the speech because of school policies, according to documents.

She decided to file a civil action in Billings district court in December 2009, because she didn't want other students to have to sacrifice their freedom of expression.

"I realized that if I stay silent, there would be so many students after me who wouldn't be allowed to thank God or anyone else," she said.

However, the district court ruled against Griffith by determining Butte School District No. 1 didn't violate Montana law or the First Amendment by preventing Griffith from speaking. Judge Gregory Todd went on to say that it was the school district's policy to ban religious references of any kind during graduation speeches.

The Supreme Court disagreed.

It concluded that Griffith has a First Amendment right to express her personal religious views at school. The 37-page ruling noted that Griffith's speech made references to God and Jesus three times and each were "unmistakably directed to her personal life and beliefs." The court determined she wasn't using the speech to convert or elicit audience participation in her religious views.

Griffith's lawyer, Bill O'Connor of Billings, applauded the Supreme Court's opinion. He added that this is a victory for Griffith and for freedom of expression.

"They (Supreme Court justices) did not hold that religion take over our schools, but you have a right to have a religious opinion and be in school," O'Connor said.

Tony Koenig, attorney for the Montana School Boards Association, which represented the school district, said he was disappointed with the ruling. Koenig said the board believed religious references weren't appropriate in a public school's graduation ceremony because it could affect a "captive audience."

Koenig said he and the association will review the high court's decision before determining any further action.

Under the Supreme Court's ruling, the case goes back to the district court, where attorney fees or other damages to Griffith will be awarded, although Griffith didn't ask for monetary damages.

The justices who ruled in favor of Griffith were Patricia Cotter, Mike McGrath, Michael Wheat, James C. Nelson, Brian Morris and Jim Rice. Justice W. William Leaphart sided with the district court.

"In demanding that there be no sectarian religious references, (the school district) was properly imposing content-based restrictions," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Reporter John Grant Emeigh can be reached at (406) 496-5511 or at john.emeigh@lee.net.

 

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