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Christian Plaintiffs in Upstate NY Censorship Case Win Free-Speech Victory

by Jim Brown and Jenni Parker
April 10, 2006
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(AgapePress) - - A federal judge has ordered an upstate New York school district to return bricks inscribed with Christian messages to a high school walkway, and a pro-family civil liberties attorney is praising the outcome as a victory against viewpoint discrimination.

The dispute arose after the Mexico Academy High School class of 1999 in Mexico, New York (Oswego County), sold bricks that could be inscribed with personal messages and included in a walkway as a fundraiser. However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) complained that certain bricks, particularly those inscribed with the messages "Jesus Saves/John 3:16" and "Jesus Christ, the only way," constituted public school endorsement of Christianity.

The ACLU maintained that the bricks violated the so-called "separation of church and state," and the group's complaints prompted school officials to remove the contested bricks in 2000. Other bricks purchased by private individuals bore messages that referred to God or to local churches but were allowed to remain in place; only the bricks mentioning Jesus were taken out of the walkway.

Two community residents who had purchased the extracted bricks filed a lawsuit challenging the school district's censorship of their messages. In that case, Judge Norman Mordue of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York has now ruled that removal of the bricks bearing the Christian messages was a violation of the free-speech rights of those individuals who paid for them.

Although the District Court initially refused to grant a preliminary injunction to have the bricks reinstalled, it was forced to reconsider the issue when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case for reconsideration. The court's ultimate ruling orders school officials to restore the bricks inscribed with religious messages to the school walkway.

Pro-family attorney John Whitehead is president of The Rutherford Institute, the civil liberties and human rights defense organization that represented the Christian plaintiffs in the lawsuit, arguing that the school's censorship violated rights guaranteed to citizens by the First and Fourteenth Amendments as well as by the New York Constitution. He is pleased with the court's ruling and says it is consistent with the outcomes of many similar suits in which his legal group has been involved.

"We've won several of these cases in this area," Whitehead notes. " It's called viewpoint discrimination. You can't discriminate against the religious viewpoint, and the judge said that's what happened here. It violates the First Amendment."

The attorney asserts that officials with the high school, in initiating the walkway fundraiser, created a public forum that allowed for private speech, and apparently the bricks with the Christian messages were initially welcomed. "But when the ACLU threatened a lawsuit," he says, "they actually removed the bricks, and the judge said that's viewpoint discrimination. That violates the First Amendment when you have different messages on a sidewalk or in [another public] forum."

One More Victory in the Ongoing Battle for Faith in the Public Square
Although the court ruled in accordance with the Constitution this time, Whitehead believes such cases will not simply go away. He predicts that people's right to free religious expression will continue to face challenges and says this is because public schools are becoming increasingly secular -- and are by far "more secular than they were 25 years ago when I started The Rutherford Institute, even though we've won cases."

That is why Christians need to "get in there and really fight" for their viewpoint, the civil liberties defender contends. Believers need to wake up and join the battle for the right to express their faith in the public square, he says, including "the right just to say Jesus' name along with other gods or other viewpoints, in the public schools."

If Christians lose the right to express their viewpoint in the public schools, Whitehead warns, "all those 50-some million children there are probably going to think Christians are kooks because we're going to get so marginalized."

But for residents of Oswego County, New York, at least, Christians' equal right to express their religious viewpoint along with others' private expressions has been upheld in what the Rutherford Institute president is calling "a great victory for free speech." In concluding that the removal of the Christian-themed bricks from the Mexico Academy High School walkway constituted viewpoint discrimination, Judge Mordue rejected the school's arguments and cited the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Good News Club v. Milford Central School -- an earlier Rutherford Institute victory -- that "speech discussing otherwise permissible subjects cannot be excluded ... on the ground that the subject is discussed from a religious viewpoint."

Whitehead says The Rutherford Institute is pleased with the outcome of this case and appreciates the district court's thoughtful consideration of the constitutional issues. Still, he urges Christians to remain vigilant and aware of their rights, and to stand up against attempts to censor their expressions of faith.

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