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Wednesday, November 14,2001

School officials above the law

Columbine takes religious tiles from wall

Pity the poor parents of students killed in the Columbine massacre of 1999. They lost their kids. Adding insult to injury, the Jefferson County School District wants to deny them their most basic, fundamental civil liberties: their freedoms of religious belief and expression in a forum to facilitate their mourning.

To disenfranchise these citizens, school district officials are boldly and arrogantly acting as if they're above the law. They've shown contempt for the court. They've shown zero respect for 20 years of case law-including a United States Supreme Court decision in June-in which the federal courts have repeatedly upheld the rights of students and parents to express religious beliefs on school property.

Furthermore, the Jeffco school officials have shown themselves to be shallow and ignorant, unable to make simple distinctions between the establishment of religion by public schools-which is illegal-and the free expression of religion by individuals.

Since 1996, three years before the massacre, Columbine has let students express themselves by painting 4-by-4 inch ceramic tiles. Each tile is an artistic expression, and each is placed above the rows of lockers in the hallway.

After the April 20, 1999 massacre, Jeffco school officials were inspired to offer the wall of tiles as a forum for the families and friends of victims, as well as the students. The district offered the forum for art in order to facilitate art therapy, as the sharing of creative expression has long been known as a constructive way to grieve.

But district officials want only certain types of "free" expression by the students and other parties who grieve. Want to paint a dog or cat in remembrance of a student who loved animals? That's just fine.

But don't paint a cross, even a tiny almost invisible cross, in memory of your son who loved Jesus. Don't paint the word "lord" in a statement about peace. Don't paint anything that could in any way reflect a religious belief of any kind, because the school district will rip it down in the name of "separation of church and state." Maybe they're mean, or stupid, or both. It doesn't matter. Regardless of motive, these people are lawless censors.

Their actions raise some interesting possibilities. Would the school district remove a tile painting of Ghandi, a religious leader who changed the world? Or how about a tile painting of Michelangelo's sculpture of David? Clearly such a painting would be religious symbolism, and the re-creation of great art that has molded modern culture. District officials refuse to answer those questions.

After the Columbine massacre, the survivors of several victims turned to religion in their grief. Some have centered their lives around faith, so it's fitting that religion might find its way into their artistic expressions. As such, tiles have been painted that say "God," or feature crosses, or prayers for peace. One says: "4-20-99, Jesus wept."

"My tile featured a heart with a cross overlaid, and my murdered son's name at the bottom," says Sue Petrone, whose son Daniel Rohrbough was killed in the massacre. "It never made it on the wall. My step-daughter's tile featured a stem rose, with a tiny yellow cross in the background that you could barely see. School officials ripped it down."

Danny Rohrbough's father, Brian Rohrbough, argues that he cannot even speak about his son without alluding to his faith. For him, a secular expression of art isn't possible.

Tragically, and unlawfully, the school district has removed 90 tiles deemed to contain religious symbolism. It's unlawful because the law on this is up-to-date and crystal clear: school districts that provide forums for free expression cannot discriminate against religious expression.

In Good News Club v. Milford Central School, the supreme court held that a Christian youth club for grades K through 8 must be permitted to meet in a public school building because the club's meetings constitute "moral instruction" similar to instruction provided by other youth organizations including Boy Scouts and the 4-H club. Justices determined that the meeting space is merely a forum for information-much like the wall of tiles-and does not constitute an endorsement.

But Marilyn Saltzman, a spokesperson for the Jeffco School District, says the tiles may be perceived as a school endorsement because they are "permanently affixed" to the wall. (Permanently affixed? School officials ripped down 90 of them. Duhhh.)

The fact is, they aren't an official statement by the school. The tiles weren't painted by the principal, the superintendent or the school board. They were painted by individuals-not authorities-and are presented as such. Furthermore, a misunderstanding by morons isn't legal justification for censorship.

Says the court: "Ignorant bystanders cannot make censorship legitimate... Schools may explain that they do not endorse speech by permitting it. If pupils do not comprehend so simple a lesson, then one wonders whether schools can teach anything at all."

For decades, the courts have understood that forums for free expression are a marketplace of ideas that keep themselves in check. If one can paint a cross, another can paint a menorah. If one can paint Jesus, another can paint Buddha.

"What if a variety of religious symbols appeared on the wall? You know, Jesus, Buddha, Ghandi?" I asked of Saltzman. "Which official statement would the district be making?"

"It could be perceived as an endorsement of religion in general," Saltzman said.

No, it would be a statement by the school that in a world of free expression some people, usually a minority, will express religious beliefs.

"The establishment of religion involves coercion," says John Whitehead, lead attorney with the Rutherford Institute, which has defended the families whose tiles have been censored. "A wall containing free expression doesn't coerce anyone to believe or pray, so it's not a form of establishment."

Jeffco school officials appeared guilty of mere stupidity. Up and until this week, that is, when they essentially told U.S. District Court Judge Wiley Daniel to shove it. Judge Daniel ruled that district officials had until Sunday, Nov. 4, to replace the tiles they had unlawfully censored.

Yet, as of Tuesday afternoon-two days after the deadline for replacing the tiles-school officials had failed to obey the order.

While flagrantly disobeying a federal judge's order, Columbine attorneys furiously sought a stay so that the district could continue its flagrant violations of free speech. Late Tuesday, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put Judge Daniel's ruling on hold in order that the district can appeal.

Contempt of court is the minor issue here. Bigger issues are the contempt school officials have shown for the civil liberties of grieving parents of slain students; their contempt for the Bill of Rights; their contempt for art; and their contempt of faith. It's no wonder such people would flagrantly disregard a judge's order. These are truly contemptible public servants who will surely get slapped down by the courts.

Send letters to the editor to: letters@boulderweekly.com. Fax: 303-494-2585. Snail mail: Boulder Weekly Letters, 690 S. Lashley Lane, Boulder, CO 80305. Contact Wayne Laugesen at Wayne@Laugesen.com.

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