No Room for Christian Speakers in Montana School District

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

( - A civil liberties group is asking a federal appeals court to allow the case of a Christian motivational speaker to proceed to trial.

The case involves a man who was invited to give a non-religious address to Montana middle school students -- until the school board, fearing that he might express his Christian views, rescinded the invitation.

The Rutherford Institute says Dillon, Mont., school officials discriminated against Jaroy Carpenter because of his religious beliefs.

Carpenter was asked to take part in a Dillon, Mont., middle school assembly, after several students died in suicides and car crashes.

Concerned Dillon residents were looking for ways to reach out to troubled kids, the Rutherford Institute said, and as part of that effort, the local school board invited Carpenter to give a "strictly secular" speech to students on Oct. 9, 2002.

However, the school board -- after consulting with attorneys -- rescinded its invitation because of concerns that Carpenter's Christian faith and his affiliation with an evangelical Christian ministry might put the school at risk of violating the so-called "separation of church and state."

"Even though 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, school board members said that they could not risk the possibility that Carpenter would address religious matters during his speech and subject the district to a lawsuit," the Rutherford Institute said.

Other area schools that had agreed to hold similar assemblies rescinded their offers as well, Rutherford noted.

A Montana court upheld the school district's motion to dismiss the case; and now the Rutherford Institute has filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, asking that Carpenter's case be allowed to proceed to trial.

Institute attorneys argue that the school's fears about being sued are unsubstantiated -- and stem from "a distrust of religious persons and a misinterpretation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause."

"Religious persons, like all others, have the right not to be discriminated against because of their beliefs of associations," said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute.

The Ninth Circuit is the same court that said the phrase "under God" rendered the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.