Columbine Parents In Limbo on Religious Images Ruling

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

( - Three years after the nation's worst school shooting, parents and family members of slain Columbine High School students are still waiting for a ruling by a Denver appeals court on whether they can display religious themes and images on tiles at the school commemorating loved ones murdered in the incident.

A three-judge panel heard oral arguments in the case earlier this month and legal analysts have said a decision could be imminent. But a court spokeswoman who asked to not be identified said "There's no deadline for them to make a final decision on this."

A federal judge ruled in October that the Jefferson County school district violated parents' free speech rights when it banned them from posting such messages as "Jesus Christ is Lord," and "4-99 Jesus Wept," in memory of the victims of a shooting spree that left 12 students and a teacher dead on April 20, 1999. Two student gunmen also died in the massacre.

School officials had invited parents, teachers, students and others to paint tiles in an effort to promote healing after the assault.

The school now is appealing the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver, on the grounds that the posting of religious symbols on school property violates, among others, the First Amendment's Establishment Clause on the relationship between church and state.

Meanwhile, a group of conservative and religious organizations, including the Christian Legal Society, Focus on the Family, the Catholic League, Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, the Family Research Council and the National Association of Evangelicals, have lobbied the court in support of the parents' right to religious expression.

"The trial court judge made the correct decision," said Stuart Roth, a senior counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the parents.

"Unfortunately, the school was probably using a lot of taxpayers dollars fighting to have religious messages excluded when every other type of message has been invited in from the community," Roth said.

Miriam Moore, a legal policy analyst with the Family Research Council, said the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," was never designed to prevent private religious speech, but to prevent the government from taking sides in these issues.

"When the government opens up a program to allow all people in the community to speak, if some of that speech happens to be religious, they can't go through and cherry pick and say, 'we don't want this here,' because that sends the message that the government is anti-religion," Moore said.

There have been similar cases in which courts have supported the rights of schools and communities to raise money by allowing donors to inscribe religious messages on commemorative bricks in buildings. In such cases the government can't say it will take all speech except religious speech, Moore said.

"You have to let members of the community speak their own conscience," she said.

Roth of the ACLJ claimed the school district was attempting to play the role of censor.

"Religious speech is protected speech and should not be treated differently," said Roth. "The school district clearly created a limited public forum when they invited the community to respond and the school district is required to treat all expressions produced for the display equally."

Americans have become more apt to express their religious opinions in public in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Moore said.

"On the other hand, this hasn't stopped any groups that have always been against any public expression of religious speech from doing what they do," Moore said.

E-mail a news tip to Lawrence Morahan.

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