updated 10/26/2007 5:54:52 PM ET 2007-10-26T21:54:52

A high school student can pursue nominal damages from an eastern Kentucky school district over its required anti-harassment training, an appeals court ruled Friday.

The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the Boyd County school district’s policy provided a “chill” on student Timothy Allen Morrison’s ability to profess his Christian beliefs and opposition to homosexuality. The ruling sends the case back to U.S. District Judge David Bunning for a hearing on damages.

Judge Karen Nelson Moore, joined by Judge John R. Adams, wrote that the allegation of a policy stifling free speech is enough to allow Morrison to seek damages. To make his case, the judges said, Morrison must show that the policy would “deter a person of ordinary firmness” from exercising free speech rights.

Messages left for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Christian legal group that represented Morrison, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the school district, were not immediately returned.

Morrison sued the school district claiming that the mandatory anti-harassment training threatened him with punishment for expressing religious beliefs in opposition to homosexuality. Morrison is a professed Christian who believes his religion requires him to speak out against what he sees as behavior that doesn’t comport with his understanding of Christian morality.

The policy was later changed to allow students to opt out of the training and exempt speech that would normally be protected off campus.

Dissent: Student not harmed by policy
In the dissent, Judge Deborah Cook said Morrison chose not to speak out against homosexuality and thus didn’t risk being punished.

Cook said Morrison suffered no actual harm from the policy and holding a trial for damages to award “a single dollar” serves no purpose and “trivializes” the business of the federal courts in protecting the constitution.

“We cannot find a school district constitutionally liable for chilling student speech every time a student chooses caution over risking possible discipline,” she wrote.

The training sessions were part of a settlement in 2004 of a three-year dispute between the school district and a now-defunct gay-rights group that wanted recognition as an extracurricular group.

At issue was the federal Equal Access Act, which says districts can’t bar student groups from access to school facilities based on religious, political or philosophical orientation if the districts let other groups meet on campus.

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