Parents Sue Columbine as Officials Ban Religious Symbols

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

( - Fearing lawsuits by legal watchdog groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Columbine High School officials have torn down tiles commemorating the victims of the April shooting rampage at the school. The tiles, several of which depicted religious themes, violated what they called the separation of church and state required by the U.S. Constitution.

The Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal group based in Charlottesville, Va., has filed a federal lawsuit in Denver against the school on behalf of relatives and friends of the victims who want a court order forcing the school to display the tiles.

The families of Kelly Fleming, 16, and Daniel Rohrbough, 15, two of the victims of the shooting, said the school had invited them to create the tiles, then declined to install them because of their religious nature.

One of the tiles in memory of Rohrbough said: "There is no peace, says the Lord, for the wicked." Another tile said: " Jesus Christ is Lord."

A spokeswoman for the school told the press that tiles with religious themes would not be allowed because Columbine is a private school.

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, told the school violated the parents' First Amendment right to free speech and freedom of religious expression.

Before the school year began, Columbine High School officials invited the victims' parents and relatives, as well as community members, to decorate tiles that line the school's hallways in memory of their loved ones. When the parents arrived at the school, they were told they would not be allowed to include religious messages on the tiles.

After the parents' objection, however, the school permitted religious content. But in a subsequent reversal, they chiseled away some tiles that had been posted with Biblical verses and refused to place other tiles.

"A lot of parents are upset," Whitehead told " You can't imagine what it must be like to have a child shot down, then come in and do a memorial, at the school's invitation, then have that torn down because it's religious. It's a double hurt because these children were religious, they were Christian kids.

"That community doesn't need any more of this going on. And the schools should not be sending these kinds of negative messages about religious people. It sends a bad message to a lot of people, and it further splits that community," Whitehead said.

Relatives and friends of the victims declined to comment to and spokespersons for the Jefferson County School District said district lawyers had not yet seen the lawsuit and therefore could not comment on it.

The school's decision provoked outrage among conservatives and legal groups. William Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League, said in a statement to that the parents would have a better chance of having their religious symbols accepted if they had covered them in dung.

Donohue, an outspoken critic of the Brooklyn Museum of Art's decision to go ahead with an exhibit that features a portrait of the Blessed Virgin stained with elephant dung, said: "Had the parents plopped some dung on their memorial tribute, school officials would have readily accepted it.

"That is because it is entirely legal to defame a religion on public property, just so long as someone calls it art. But it is illegal to post work that reveres religion. In short, the original meaning of the First Amendment clause on religion has been stood on its head," he added.