A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling dismissing a lawsuit filed by the student, saying that the actions of school officials were correct because the "proselytizing" nature of portions of the speech amounted to forcing the audience at the commencement ceremony to take part in a religious exercise.
"Regardless of any offered disclaimer, a reasonable dissenter still could feel that there is no choice but to participate in the proselytizing in order to attend a high school graduation," the court said in its ruling. "Although a disclaimer arguably distances school officials from 'sponsoring' the speech, it does not change the fact that proselytizing amounts to a religious practice that the school district may not coerce other students to participate in, even while looking the other way."
The student, Nicholas Lassonde, a co-salutatorian for the 1999 graduating class of Amador Valley High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, had included a lengthy Bible verse in his address along with text in which he called eternal life through Jesus "the gift of God."
"Have you accepted the gift, or will you pay the ultimate price?" Lassonde wrote in one of the redacted lines from the speech.
Lassonde had sued on the grounds that school principal Bill Coupe had violated his right to freedom of speech by directing him to remove the alleged proselytizing -- defined in the dictionary as an attempt to convert an individual's religious beliefs -- sections of his address after reviewing an advance copy.
"Plaintiff, who is a devout Christian, drafted a speech that quoted extensively from the Bible," the panel wrote in its decision. "In his declaration, Plaintiff explained that he intended for the speech to 'express his desire for fellow graduates to develop a personal relationship with God through faith in Christ in order to better their lives.'"
"For example, Plaintiff intended to discuss the general moral decay of American society during the past 30 years and to encourage his fellow students to turn to God and Jesus for strength," the ruling said.
Coupe, with the concurrence of the Pleasanton Unified School District, decided that the sections would place the district in possible violation of both the U.S. and California constitutions and ordered the passages stricken.
Lassonde was permitted to keep some religious references in his speech, such as saying that a grandfather who had recently died had gone "home to be with the Lord." He also was cleared to close his speech with the words, "God bless and good luck."
Lassonde delivered the edited speech on graduation night, although he announced that portions had been taken out and that he would hand out copies of the original text after the ceremony.
In reaching Wednesday's decision, the judges rejected Lassonde's challenge to a Ninth Circuit decision in 2000 that involved two valedictorians in Oroville, Calif., who were also ordered by school officials to "tone down" a speech heavy on religious proselytizing.
The judge's rejected Lassonde's argument that a 2001 Supreme Court decision in a New York case -- The Good News Club vs. Milford Central School -- trumped the decision in the Oroville matter, which is known as the Cole decision.
The Good News Club decision struck down a school district rule that opened school facilities to various student organizations, except those groups whose purpose was to spread a religious message.
The Ninth Circuit panel determined that there was a major difference between the like-minded Good News Club members meeting in a classroom after hours, and an annual commencement exercise organized and paid for by a public school district and involving the entire Amador Valley senior class.
"The after-hours meetings in the Good News Club lacked the imprimatur of the school, whereas the essence of graduation is to place the school's imprimatur on the ceremony -- including the student speakers that the school selected," the decision said. "Good News Club involved only the voluntary participation of some students, with prior parental permission, whereas the essence of high school graduation is the participation of all, as a captive audience."
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles.)
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