BLOGGERMichael Kessler is Associate Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Government, and an Adjunct Professor...
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AT THE CENTER
RELATED RESOURCES: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Silencing student religious beliefs
March 20, 2010
Renee Griffith was the 2008 valedictorian of her high school class in the Butte School District No. 1. Part of young Ms. Griffith's speech proposed this reference to her religious belief:
I learned to persevere these last four years, even through failure or discouragement, when I had to stand for my convictions. I can say that my regrets are few and far between. I didn't let fear keep me from sharing Christ and his joy with those around me. I learned to impart hope, to encourage people to treat each day as a gift. 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.
The school board had adopted a policy that said, in part:
Graduation is an important event for students and their families. In order to assure the appropriateness and dignity of the occasion, the District sponsors and pays for graduation ceremonies and retains ultimate control over their structure and content. District officials may not invite or permit members of the clergy to give prayers at graduation. Furthermore District officials may not organize or agree to requests for prayer by other persons at graduation, including requests from students. 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.
This policy gets it exactly right: the Court has continuously found that state control of a religious exercise implies endorsement of a particular religious view, unconstitutionally coerces those not sharing in that belief to participate in a religious exercise, and impermissibly provides state control and direction of a religious exercise. This has been justified as much to protect religious exercise from state control, as to protect a state-sponsored forum from being hijacked for religious purposes.
But poor Renee Griffith was not a state actor. She was a kid who did well and wanted to share with her peers and their families who she thought helped her on that successful journey. She was not proselytizing and, more importantly, she was not speaking on behalf of the school district. The reason she was invited was not for the particular views she was sharing, but because her hard work gave her status as one of ten valedictorians.
But the bureaucrats, presumably scared of litigation, said no. Supt. Charles Uggetti and Principal John Metz refused to let her speak at the ceremony after reviewing the speech and telling her she had to remove references to God and Christ that were contained in the portion of the speech quoted above.
She refused, was excluded, and sued, claiming that she was excluded in violation of her First Amendment religious rights.
The Montana Thirteenth Judicial District Court construed Griffith's challenge to be an establishment clause claim--that is, whether the Butte School District was within their right to maintain control over the graduation exercise. In order to do so, and not appear to endorse a particular religious view, they thought it necessary to excise religion out of the public speech of young Ms. Griffith. They relied on an earlier case, Cole v. Oroville Union High School District, 228 F.3d 1092 (9th Cir. 2000), which held that the principal's control over the student speeches would amount to endorsement of any of the content of those speeches. Thus, to maintain a stance of official non-endorsement, the students had to scrub their lives of religion in order to speak publicly. Otherwise, the District claimed they would have to open the forum to others to express their own religious beliefs.
This is utter hogwash. Griffith's challenge does not present an establishment clause question (what religious speech may the school include permissibly in the ceremony). The case presents a free exercise question: what should Ms. Griffith be able to say as part of her invited speech due to her academic standing when that speech is an expression of her own views. When the school opens a limited forum on the basis of grades (only 10 students earned the privilege to speak), and then ask students to speak about their success, the school invites students to discuss the range of influences that mattered to them, in achieving academic success. If the forum will be open at all, then the students should be able to speak freely about what motivated and sustained them, even if it opens the door to the unorthodox, the odd, and even the religious influences on their academic lives. Religion is not "inappropriate" or disruptive to that ceremony, nor does one valedictorian speaking about religion imply anything about an official endorsement. She could just as well have spoken about her work for an advocacy organization or a political campaign and there would likewise be no official school endorsement of those particular views merely due to her uttering them.
This case sits at a far distance from others, where the principal or students might invite some religious views (and not others) to be expressed for their own sake. Inviting an opening and closing prayer is an official stamp of governmental approval of that particular doctrinal view. That is impermissible for many reasons. And religious people, if they really think about it, should not want the government (which many conservative religious people claim cannot do anything right, anyway!) getting involved in deciding which doctrines are correct and proper and fitting for public ceremonies.
Rachel Griffith, on the other hand, should be able to talk appropriately and candidly about all those parts of her life--particularly those at the core of her being--that sustained her to achieve the good results of academic success. Forcing her to delete those references is a violation of her religious freedom and it diminishes all of our liberties.