Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Taking Jesus Out of a Public School, Literally

A public middle school in Ohio has had a huge portrait of Jesus hung in the entryway since 1947. The majority of the school is Christian and therefore sees no harm in the poster. Parents and students who were unhappy with this and felt it was an establishment of religion sued the school with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Wisconsin Freedom From Religious Foundation. Seeking to avoid a lawsuit, the school board put the poster away in an art-room storage area, but the ACLU claimed that the mere presence of the poster in the public school building violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. The district court in Ohio ultimately agreed with them and has determined that this was an unconstitutional establishment that the school district subjected its students to.

The ACLU lawyers feel this was the right decision and based their case off of previous Supreme Court cases dealing with the interpretation of the Establishment Clause. In the Lemon v. Kurtzman decision of 1971 the court determined, in a case involving state aid to Parochial schools, that there could not be too much government entanglement with religion, there needed to be a secular purpose if there was an overlap, and the government could not inhibit or promote religion. This came to be known as the Lemon test, and when applied to this case, it is clear that the presence of a poster of Jesus in a public school violates the Lemon test. Even the school district does not attempt to claim that there is a secular purpose for the poster, it is without a doubt a preferential treatment of Christianity over any other religion, and it seems to be an excessive entanglement of religion and the state.

However, many people who supported the school district in this case felt that because it has historically been there for 65 years, and it was placed in the building by a group of students, who are encouraged to express their beliefs and opinions, there was no harm in its presence. Their view is that no one is forced to believe in the religious views represented by the picture and it was merely there because of the historical relevance that it has in representing the group of students that placed it there. It is important to note that much of the country feels strongly that this decision and other similar decisions are an abuse of power by the courts and a ploy by the ACLU (or whichever foundation was fighting against religious establishment) to make money. This conservative news source has elicited many comments on the issue that make it evident how strongly many people feel against the court’s decision.

Those in favor of allowing the poster to remain in the school would cite the Marsh v. Chambers 1983 Supreme Court case as evidence that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of allowing an exception to the Establishment Clause when there is a historical argument. This case was concerning whether or not the Nebraskan legislature should be allowed to continue to hire a Presbyterian minister to say a prayer before each legislating day. The Court determined that because they had historically done this, there was not a serious threat of an establishment of religion, and therefore the practice could continue.

However, to me this case more closely resembles the 1980 Stone v. Graham case, in which the Supreme Court determined that public schools could not be required to hang the Ten Commandments in classrooms, whether they were there for secular, historical purposes or not. Part of the Court’s concern was that the presence of a religiously affiliated poster on the wall could potentially convince already vulnerable children that these beliefs were more correct than the beliefs their parents might otherwise be promoting. Because this current case is also within the school setting, I would assume that the Court would have these same concerns.

I personally think the district court made the correct decision on this matter. There seems to be a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause, without any real secular purpose. This is a public school setting, and although a majority of the students may be Christian, there is obviously a minority who are bothered by the presence of the poster. The Constitution was written to protect the rights of the minority. The purpose of the Establishment Clause is to prevent the state from imposing the majority religion on those minority citizens. Public schools are funded by the state, and therefore must abide by this precedent. There should not be an exception simply because the poster had been in the school for 65 years before someone decided they would raise a complaint with the Court. The amount of time it has been there should not be relevant as an excuse for violating the First Amendment.

What do you think, should the school district take this case further, or has the court made the correct decision on the matter? 


Gabby D. said...

I completely agree with Nicole on this issue. I particularly like the part where she stated that "the purpose of the Establishment Clause is to prevent the state from imposing the majority religion on those minority citizens." This is an important idea because I feel that a lot of times the court sides with Christian religion/tradition just because the majority of the public identifies with those beliefs. Nicole's case here is comparable to Lynch v. Donnelly, where the opposite ruling was decided by the Court on the basis of history and tradition.

The most compelling argument supporting this court's decision would be that there is really no secular purpose. I don't even know how to craft in argument in saying that a large picture of Jesus posted in a public school is somehow serving a secular purpose. If I saw this portrait hanging in my school I would be highly confused and definitely offended.

Cori T said...

While I agree that the portrait should not be hung up in a public middle school (for many of the reasons Nicole cited), especially in the entryway, I do not understand how the storage of the portrait in the building establishes religion. The only people who will really know that the poster is there are the administration. If the school ended up putting the portrait in storage, then why is there further need for legal action?

Maddie C. said...

I agree with Nicole that the court made the correct decision. I liked the comparison to the Stone v. Graham case because even in that case where there was an argument for a secular purpose for the display of the Ten Commandments, it was still considered unconstitutional with respect to the Establishment Clause. In this case, there is no argument for a secular purpose, but just that it has been there for 65 years. The picture is clearly religious and promotes the Christian religion over other religions and non-religion. Therefore, it is not neutral and unconstitutional for the public school to have it displayed.

Jennie M. said...

I think the district court made the right decision in this case. Having the poster hanging in the school is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause, especially considering the magnitude of the poster and the clear reference to one religion.

I think there are other ways to honor a group of students from the past that do not make current students uncomfortable every day at their public school. I am not persuaded by the historical argument in this case.

SC said...

I agree with both Nicole and the court’s decision on this case. First off, it fails all three requirements of the lemon test (which I am becoming quite fond of). There is no secular purpose, it advances Christianity, and creates excessive entanglement due to the fact that it is a public school. In addition, the fact that majority of the school is Christian is irrelevant, as it is a public institution and needs to remain religiously neutral as per the establishment clause, regardless of what faith the members of the school are.