Somewhere between state-sponsored religion (a bad thing) and the absolute exclusion of religion from public conversation (also bad), there has to be a reasonable middle ground. A federal judge now has helped the Paradise Valley Unified School District in that direction.
Probably nobody thought things would wind up in court when the Pinnacle Peak Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization came up with a nifty little fund-raising idea in 2002. The PTO would sell small saltillo tiles that would bear personal messages and be permanently mounted in the school’s hallways.
Many kinds of messages, some spiritual and some bordering on the political, were accepted. But those of Ann and Paul Seidman of Scottsdale were rejected. Why? They dared to use that highly offensive word, “God,” as in, “God bless Quinn” and “God bless Haley.”
It’s not hard to figure out why. Courts have ruled consistently and rightly for more than a generation that public schools have no business promoting religion in the classroom. Thus, teacher-led and school-sponsored prayer is forbidden. Spending class time to read the Bible as a devotional (as opposed to educational) exercise is forbidden. Schools have lost so often in these kinds of cases that it’s easy to see why they’d want to wash their hands of the question and just kick God out of school altogether.
But that was never the courts’ intent, and in trying to avoid trouble administrators have created more of it by violating students’ rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Prayer in school is fine — as long as it’s a student’s private expression. Bible-reading in school is fine — as long as it’s on a student’s or teacher’s break time. And so, federal Judge Paul Rosenblatt ruled, is the expression “God bless Quinn” on a saltillo tile.
Rosenblatt made the following points:
- If people are allowed within reasonable limits to say what they want on the tiles, and if some messages can be construed as at least subtly political or religious, then the Seidmans should get to say what they want.
- There are limits, to a degree. Tiles overtly promoting religious observance or exalting a particular faith could reasonably be excluded. “God bless,” however, is so generic that it could hardly offend anyone. The “God” in question could be Thor, for all anyone knows.
Rosenblatt did say individual school employees cannot be held personally liable for their decision, which one assumes was made in good, um, faith. But that shouldn’t be construed as a blanket rule for school officials who might use the separation of church and state as an excuse to wantonly trample the religious rights of students or employees.
It’s a fine line, yes. But it’s too bad the school district couldn’t have figured this out before a federal judge had to show them the error of its ways.