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High court's quiet statements // EXPRESSION

Justices without comment dismiss as a free speech issue a student's right _ against her teacher's wishes _ to use Jesus as a research topic.

A student given a failing grade after ignoring her teacher's instruction not to write a term paper about Jesus lost her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

Brittney Kaye Settle, now 19, had asked for damages and to have a failing grade on the paper removed from her records at Dickson County Junior High, 35 miles east of Nashville.

Appeals to the principal, superintendent and school board failed. Her 1991 suit was thrown out by a federal judge, and his ruling was upheld by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last May.

Settle and her attorneys argued that the teacher's decision violated her free speech rights.

Supreme Court justices disagreed without comment.

The high court's decision was "consistent with the attitude that Christians are a minority you can treat any way you want to. It's open season on Christians," said Jerry Settle, who pushed the case for his daughter.

His daughter, who went on to graduate from high school and now works in an office, preferred not to comment on Monday's ruling, he said.

Other students in the class wrote on magic, the occult and other religious themes, said the elder Settle, a mental health counselor.

Dana Ramsey, Settle's ninth-grade English teacher, said she refused to let the young woman write about Jesus because Settle had a strong personal belief in Christianity that might make it hard for her to write a dispassionate research paper.

Also, grading such a paper might cause problems if her remarks about grammar or organization were misinterpreted as criticism of Settle's religious beliefs, she said during the litigation.

In addition, part of the purpose of the assignment was to have students research a topic unfamiliar to them, and Settle already knew much about the subject of Jesus, Ramsey said.

The 6th Circuit said teachers must be given broad discretion to give grades and conduct class discussion, and added: "Learning is more vital in the classroom than free speech."

The Settles' attorney, Michael Paulsen, said he thought the question clearly a First Amendment issue for freedom of speech as well as religion.

The Supreme Court ruling is "as naked an example as you can find of discrimination of religion and expression of religious viewpoints by students," said Paulsen, a law professor at the University of Minnesota.

The junior high school's principal, Reed Evans, said the favorable ruling was expected.