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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Attorneys Defend Christian Motivational Speaker from Religious Discrimination by Montana School Board

Citing Speaker's Christian Faith, Association with Christian Ministry, School Board Withdraws Invitation to Address Students; Lawsuit Filed in Defense of Speaker's Right to Free Exercise of Religion

--Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have requested a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court on behalf of a motivational speaker whose invitation to address an assembly of middle school students in Dillon, Mont., on secular topics was rescinded by school board members because he is a Christian and is affiliated with an evangelical Christian ministry. In asking the district court to order school officials to honor their invitation to have Jaroy Carpenter speak to students at a Dillon Middle School assembly scheduled to take place on Oct. 9, 2002, about their responsibility to remain in school, Institute attorneys argue that the school's unsubstantiated fears about violating the so-called "separation of church and state" are due to a misinterpretation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

As part of an effort to help students cope with a string of teen suicides and automobile deaths, concerned residents of Dillon, Mont., approached the Dawson McAllister Association for advice on how to reach out to Dillon youth. McAllister, a nationally recognized youth speaker who hosts a Christian radio program and conducts Christian youth rallies across the country, suggested that local middle schools and high schools stage a three-day, city-wide youth rally, as well as non-religious school assemblies focusing on respect for self and others, responsibility and making the right choices. DMA recommended that motivational speaker Jaroy Carpenter, a former public school teacher who presents non-religious speeches in public schools across the country, be invited to address the students. Carpenter gives secular presentations at high schools and middle schools, as well as religious presentations at Christian youth rallies, retreats and campus ministry functions. After reviewing the proposal for a secular in-school assembly, school officials and community members from the Dillon Elementary School District invited Carpenter to present a strictly secular speech to students at Dillon Middle School. However, after one school board member voiced the concern that Carpenter's Christian faith and affiliation with DMA might put the school at risk of violating the so-called "separation of church and state," the school board rescinded its invitation. Despite the fact that Carpenter has made more than 200 secular presentations at school assemblies around the country and has never addressed religion or sought to proselytize those in attendance, the school board members stated that they could not risk the possibility that Carpenter would address religious matters during his speech and subject the district to a lawsuit. Ten other area schools that had agreed to hold these assemblies rescinded their offers as well.

"By withdrawing its invitation to address a public school assembly simply because Jaroy Carpenter is religious or happens to be associated with a religious ministry, this school district is essentially saying that religious persons--be they ministers, priests or community members--must be kept off campus even though they have valuable insights and experiences to share with schoolchildren on subjects other than religion," stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "This is religious discrimination and contrary to the values of inclusion and community involvement that Americans hold dear."

The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.

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