Religion in Society

Federal Judge -- School Can't Ban 'God' from Posters

| by Baptist Press

MT. JULIET, Tenn. (BP)--- In a victory for a group of five Christian
parents, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction May 1
preventing a Tennessee elementary school from censoring posters
advertising the popular National Day of Prayer and See You at the Pole

The order by U.S. District Judge Robert L. Echols comes
days before Thursday's National Day of Prayer observance and more than
seven months after a controversy began when officials with Lakeview
Elementary School in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., prevented certain posters
advertising last September's See You at the Pole to be displayed as
submitted. Advised by an assistant principal, who said the posters
violated district policy, the parents covered up Bible verses as well
as phrases such as "In God We Trust" and "God Bless America." The
assistant principal says she remembers seeing only Bible verses and not
the other phrases when she told the parents that the posters couldn't
be displayed as-is.

The Christian legal organization Alliance
Defense subsequently sued the school on behalf of the parents, claiming
the school's actions -- as well as the school's policy -- violated the
parents' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The school's
policy requires the posters to state only the time, place, date and
location of the event and also to get pre-approval from a school
administrator, usually the principal or the director of schools, before
a poster is displayed.

In his injunction order, Echols said the parents likely would succeed in a trial.

the Plaintiffs to cover all religious speech on the posters under the
guise of a reasonable time, place and manner restriction reflects a
misunderstanding of law, with the result that the Defendants stifled
religious speech, while the restrictions imposed to stifle the speech
were neither reasonable nor viewpoint neutral," Echols wrote.

such as See You at the Pole and the National Day of Prayer are
non-curricular activities at the school and are led by students and
their parents. The parents claimed that under the school's policy, they
would not be able to post official National Day of Prayer posters this
year because the posters had the word "prayer" and also had a Bible
verse, Psalm 33:22.

Echols' order prevents the school from using
its policy "to suppress religious speech on posters that are created by
students and parents" in publicizing the two events "unless any school
regulation restricting religious speech on posters is reasonable,
viewpoint-neutral, and in accordance with federal law."

policy that the school had used actually does not even mention
religion, although it does say the principal "may prohibit" materials
that "violate the rights of others" or "would reasonably cause students
to believe that they are sponsored or endorsed by the school." Echols
said previous Supreme Court and appeals court precedents prevent the
school from doing what it did.

"Simply issuing or permitting a
communication involving a religious organization during school hours
'does not render the communication state speech, nor does it invariably
create a perception of endorsement or coercion by government
officials,'" he wrote, referencing the parents' posters and citing a
Fourth Circuit ruling.

It's the second time in less than two and
a half years the school has found itself involved in a lawsuit over
religious issues. In 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union filed
suit, saying the school was too intertwined in religious events such as
the National Day of Prayer. A federal court ordered the school to post
a disclaimer on flyers and posters stating that the school system and
administration do not endorse or sponsor the event.

disclaimer, Echols said in his May 1 ruling, is significant. The
disclaimer was on the posters that were partially covered by parents
last year.

"The risk of school endorsement here was ameliorated
by the presence of the disclaimer, albeit in small type font, attached
to each poster," he wrote.

Echols was nominated by President George H.W. Bush.

Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.