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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Attorneys Win Settlement in Cases Involving Censorship of Religious References from Valedictory Speeches

SACRAMENTO, Calif.--Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have settled the case of an Oroville, Calif., high school valedictorian whose 1999 graduation speech was barred after school officials found it too religious. The settlement ends a legal feud that began when the student's older brother, who was valedictorian of the same school in 1998, sued the school for similar discrimination.

According to the lawsuit, school officials were retaliating against Jason Niemeyer for his older brother Chris's lawsuit over similar censorship one year earlier. Chris Niemeyer, valedictorian of Oroville High School in 1998, was not allowed to deliver his class's valedictory address because he refused to eliminate references to God and Jesus from his speech. On the day before Chris' ceremony, Rutherford Institute attorneys filed suit in federal district court and requested a temporary restraining order that would allow him to give his speech, but a federal judge denied the request. In October 2000, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment required school officials to censor all "sectarian" or "proselytizing" references in valedictory speeches. In early 1999, Jason Niemeyer proposed two valedictory speeches to Oroville High School officials. One addressed the benefits of a relationship with Jesus Christ; the other was religious but more nonsectarian. School officials rejected both speeches and prohibited Jason from participating in the ceremony. Rutherford Institute attorneys filed suit on behalf of Jason Niemeyer for the retaliatory behavior of the school district. In March 2002, the school district agreed to a settlement of $30,000 in compensation and attorneys' fees. In a joint statement, Chris and Jason Niemeyer declared, "Although we are relieved that the litigation is behind us, it does not preclude the district from prohibiting or censoring future student speech. Extracting religion from the educational setting forces students to adopt a false perception of the world. We would strongly urge the district to implement a tolerant policy on student speech -- of all viewpoints."

"Ignorance of the law and hostility toward religious speech have now led Oroville school officials to exclude two of the community's finest young men from their own graduation ceremonies, and denied their family an honor that was rightfully theirs," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "The Rutherford Institute will continue to hold wrongheaded school officials accountable for anti-religious conduct cloaked in the so-called "separation of church and state."

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

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