Valedictorian Silenced Over Her Christian Faith Will Go to Court

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - A high school student whose commencement speech was cut off when she spoke about her Christian faith will have her case heard in a federal court.

A federal judge in Nevada ruled Monday that a debate over freedom of religious expression in public school commencement ceremonies will go to court.

The charges stem from a June 15 incident at Foothill High School in Henderson, Nevada, when school administrators cut off valedictorian Brittany McComb's commencement speech after she strayed from a pre-approved script. Earlier, they had removed from her speech references to the Bible and her faith.

McComb described God's love as "something we all desire. It's unprejudiced, it's merciful, it's free, it's real, it's huge, and it's everlasting." Then the microphone was switched off.

Amateur video of the ceremony showed graduates and their families cheering and booing as McComb continued to deliver her speech without the microphone. Audience members heckled administrators as McComb argued with them onstage.

After the ceremony, attorneys with the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Nevada, accusing the administration of violating McComb's First Amendment right to freedom of speech and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.

At the time, Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead told Cybercast News Service that McComb was not asking the court to award damages beyond declaring the school's actions unconstitutional.

On Monday, Judge Robert C. Jones rejected the school's motion to dismiss the case, clearing the way for discovery hearings to begin after school attorneys file a response to the accusations.

"We're pleased that the court recognizes the validity of Brittany McComb's claims," Whitehead said in a statement. "This is an important first step in protecting Brittany's right to free speech."

Officials from Foothill High School could not be reached for comment Monday because school offices are closed for winter break. Bill Hoffman, general counsel for the Clark County School District where Foothill is located, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Lassonde v. Pleasanton Unified School District (2003) that schools can censor religious speeches that proselytize because they give the "appearance of government sponsorship of religion."

The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, allowing the Ninth Circuit's decision to stand. Religious freedom advocates expect that decision to be revisited as soon as another circuit issues a ruling contradicting the Ninth Circuit's opinion.

See Earlier Story:
Valedictorian Sues High School for Censoring Jesus Speech (July 14, 2006)

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