Schools can't refuse to accept fund-raising messages solely because they refer to the Almighty, a federal judge ruled Monday.
Judge Paul Rosenblatt said the Paradise Valley Unified School District violated the free-speech rights of Ann and Paul Seidman of Scottsdale in rejecting their request to purchase — and have installed on school walls — a saltillo tile that said “God Bless Quinn, We Love You Mom & Dad.” Also rejected was an identical tile the Seidmans wanted to buy in the name of their daughter Haley.
Rosenblatt noted that the district did not reject other tiles with statements of personal belief, patriotism and even advertisements. He also said there were other tiles accepted, “some nearly identical to the Seidmans' messages only from a secular viewpoint.”
And the judge specifically pointed out that nothing in the rejected messages attempted to induce someone to convert to a particular faith.
“Schools do have legitimate reasons to selectively regulate controversial subject matter within their hallways,” Rosenblatt wrote. “Nevertheless, once a forum is opened up to speaking on a particular topic, a school cannot prohibit others from speaking on the basis that what they intend to say has been spoken from a religious perspective.”
Lawyer Peter Gentala, who filed suit on behalf of the parents, said Monday's ruling will have implications beyond the Paradise Valley school district — and not just in fund raising.
“The public schools are on notice now that this type of censorship that's targeted toward religious speech because it's religious speech is unconstitutional,” he said.
District spokeswoman Judi Willis said the schools will comply with the ruling.
“We just really needed clarification,” she said.
The $25 tiles were part of a 2002 fund-raiser organized by the Pinnacle Peak Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization, with school authorization. Under the “Tiles for Smiles” program, parents were encouraged to buy personalized 4-by-8-inch tiles that could bear a special message; the tiles would be permanently affixed to the interior elementary school halls.
School officials also rejected five other tiles on the grounds they contained religious messages. But only the Seidmans went to the Alliance Defense Fund, a public-interest law firm that defends religious freedom.
Rosenblatt said the district has an interest in maintaining an educational environment and ensuring that students are not exposed to materials inappropriate to their level of maturity. And, he said, the school wants to avoid violations of constitutional prohibitions against establishing and promoting religion.
But Rosenblatt said there are First Amendment concerns.
For example, he noted, other tiles deemed acceptable included “Bless Our School,” “No Question is Wrong,” “Live Free” and “The Zuckerman Family Wishes You Peace.” The district even accepted “In God We Trust,” a motto placed on U.S. currency, though it rejected “God Bless America” until the word “God” was removed.
“The court can only conclude that the school district engaged in viewpoint discrimination by rejecting religious statements on a subject that would have been permissible as within the scope of the forum if presented from a secular point of view,” the judge wrote.
Rosenblatt said the district would have been justified in excluding tiles that attempted to induce someone to convert to a particular faith or exhorting religious observance. But he said the messages on the disputed tiles did neither of these.
The judge did decide that individual school district employees cannot be held personally liable for refusing to accept the tiles. Rosenblatt said that the law in this area is not so clear to suggest that they abused their position in rejecting the tiles.