A Supreme Victory for Religious Freedom

, Mathew D. Staver, Leave a comment

Washington, DC – Today, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a ruling by a federal court of appeals to stand that declared public schools cannot censor the religious viewpoints of students in class assignments. The case, Baldwinsville School District v. Peck, involved a school district’s censorship of a kindergartner’s art poster that contained a picture of Jesus. Liberty Counsel represents Antonio Peck, the student whose poster was censored.

When attending kindergarten at Baldwinsville Elementary School in Syracuse, New York, Antonio’s teacher instructed the class to draw posters regarding their understanding of the environment. Antonio drew a poster depicting children holding hands circling the globe, people picking up garbage and recycling trash. The left side depicted Jesus with one knee to the ground and two hands stretched toward the sky, although Jesus was not named. This poster was displayed for half a day on the cafeteria wall, along with 80 other student posters, during an event where parents were invited to view their children’s artwork. But unlike the other kindergarten posters, school officials folded Antonio’s poster in half in order to censor Jesus. School officials said the poster violated “church and state” and would give the impression that the school was teaching religion, even though the poster was clearly a kindergartner’s artwork. Folding the poster made it look odd. Antonio’s name at the bottom was cut in half. When he saw his poster folded, Antonio felt ashamed in front of his classmates and his parents, because school officials told him and his parents why his poster was folded. He then assumed he did something wrong and was being punished. When school officials refused to remedy the matter, apologize or adopt a policy to prevent future censorship, Liberty Counsel filed suit.

On October 18, 2005, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 in favor of Antonio. The Second Circuit joined the Ninth and the Eleventh Circuits in holding that public schools may not censor a student’s viewpoint on a permissible subject matter when it is responsive to a school assignment or program. The First and Tenth circuits hold that viewpoint discrimination in the curricular context may be permissible. The school district then asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.

While on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that schools may not censor religious viewpoints of students when they address permissible subjects in response to class assignments or instruction.

Mathew D. Staver stated: We are pleased the Supreme Court allowed this decision to stand. The school district sent a terrible message to Antonio that his faith is not welcome, when officials persisted in censoring his artwork. At the pinnacle of the Bill of Rights is the First Amendment, which enshrines our first liberty. It’s about time that school officials learn a simple lesson – private religious speech when expressed on public property is constitutionally protected. Antonio, who began this case while in kindergarten, is an example of the maxim that one person, no matter the age, can accomplish great things when they stand for a principled cause.

Mat Staver is the President and General Counsel for Liberty Counsel.