Jesus just left Oroville

After a four-year legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, the 1999 Oroville High School valedictorian who was barred from making a religious speech at a graduation ceremony has reached a settlement with the school district worth $59,000.

Jason Niemeyer and his brother Chris were successive valedictorians at Oroville Union High School in 1998 and 1999. But each brother got into trouble for attempting to make graduation speeches that were heavily religious. The brothers were banned from speaking because then-Principal Larry Payne believed that allowing them to make references to Jesus Christ and the Christian God in their addresses amounted to official school support of a student attempting to proselytize to a captive audience.

The Niemeyer family sued the school district over Chris Niemeyer’s rejected speech in 1998 and in 1999 added Jason to the suit. The family charged the district had violated both students’ free-speech rights by not allowing them to express their religious viewpoints before the graduating class.

A U.S. District Court judge denied the family’s motion to order the district to allow Jason’s speech on the grounds that it would violate the Fourth Amendment, which forbids the official establishment of any religion. On appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court, Judge Lawrence K. Karlton threw the case out on the same grounds. Though the case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, it was removed from the docket, effectively killing it.

But the Niemeyers persisted, filing a separate suit claiming that Jason had been the victim of district retaliation for being part of the lawsuit against the school. Although the district has denied retaliation as a motive for not allowing Jason’s speech, Superintendent Barry Kayrell has told at least one other newspaper that district administrators believed that reaching a settlement would in the end be cheaper than going through another trial.

Kayrell was unavailable for comment at press time.

Though the Niemeyers’ attorney, Sacramento lawyer Steven Burlingham, admitted that the settlement does not vindicate his clients or restore what he referred to as their First Amendment rights, he said the district clearly attempted to impose prior restraint on Jason by barring him from planning sessions and other activities related to commencement.

“One of the speeches Jason submitted did not even mention God,” Burlingham said. “[The district’s] opinion was, ‘You’re suing us, so we’re not going to give you a fair shake.'”

In settling, the district did not accept fault or blame for any wrong done to either Neimeyer.