A public school violated the First Amendment rights of a student when it forbade her from acknowledging God and Christ in her 2008 commencement remarks, the Montana Supreme Court has ruled.
The court, in a 6-1 vote, held that a public school would not have violated church-state separation if it allowed student Renee Griffith to discuss her religious beliefs during a valedictorian address. By preventing her from going forward, the school infringed on the student’s free speech rights, the court said.
Griffith planned to mention her religious convictions in the speech by stating, “I didn’t let fear keep me from sharing Christ and His joy with those around me…. 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.”
Prior to the commencement ceremony, Griffith was asked by the school to remove the religious language.
Justice William Leaphart, in his dissent to the Griffith v. Butte School District No. 1 decision, argued that public school was right to consider the student’s remarks a church-state concern.
“Attendance at a high school graduation is compulsory,” he wrote. “The speakers chosen by the school clearly have a ‘captive’ audience. The student body of a public school is presumably very diverse with a mix of Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, and agnostics, many of whom would resent being required to attend a ceremony in which Christ and His love was being shared with those present in the captive audience.”