Law & Courts

High Court Declines to Hear Case on Pupil’s Use Of Religious Images

By Andrew Trotter — May 02, 2006 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to review a case in which educators at a New York school restricted religious viewpoints that a student expressed in a class assignment having nothing to do with religion.

The court’s refusal to consider a ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit means that public schools in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont, the states covered by the New York City-based appeals court, may not censor a student’s viewpoint on curriculum subjects when it is a response to a school assignment or program, said Mathew D. Staver, the lawyer who represented the student in the case.

Antonio Peck's poster on the environment includes Jesus and a church, along with children depositing trash. His parents' lawsuit alleged that the school censored the religious images.

At issue is a poster that Antonio Peck, who in the spring of 2000 was a kindergartner at McNamara Elementary School in the 5,900-student Baldwinsville, N.Y., school district, made at home with the help of his mother, JoAnne Peck, for an assignment on recycling. His teacher had directed her students to create posters based on a two-month environmental unit; the posters were to be displayed at a school environmental program to which parents would be invited.

The first version of Antonio’s poster featured cutout pictures of Jesus, the Ten Commandments, and other religious images under the heading “The only way to save our world!”

A substitute poster, which Antonio and his mother made after the teacher asked him to revise it to address material learned in class, showed a recycling symbol and children cleaning up trash, but also depicted Jesus and a church.

For the environmental program, school personnel hung Antonio’s poster with those by other pupils but folded it back so the part showing Jesus could not be seen. The boy’s parents sued, claiming a violation of Antonio’s First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and free speech, and other violations.

A Religious Perspective

A federal district judge in Syracuse dismissed the suit. But in October 2005, a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit court unanimously found merit in the family’s free-speech claim.

“The district court overlooked evidence that, if construed in the light most favorable to the Pecks, suggested that Antonio’s poster was censored not because it was unresponsive to the assignment, and not because [the teacher and school principal] believe that JoAnne Peck rather than Antonio was responsible for the poster’s content, but because it offered a religious perspective on the topic of how to save the environment,” U.S. Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi wrote.

Distinguishing a student’s expression of a “religious viewpoint,” which may be constitutionally protected speech, from a student’s unprotected “religious proselytizing,” can be hard, the judge said.

But whether Antonio’s poster showed a “religious viewpoint,” and whether the school would have similarly censored a poster that depicted a purely secular image that was equally outside the scope of the lessons, were disputed factual questions that should be resolved in a trial, Judge Calabresi wrote.

In its petition to the Supreme Court, the Baldwinsville district argued that the appeals court’s decision “perilously tied the hands of public school educators within its jurisdiction.”

The Supreme Court on April 24 declined without comment to hear the district’s appeal in Baldwinsville School District v. Peck (Case No. 05-899). The case will now return to the district court for further proceedings.

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2006 edition of Education Week as High Court Declines to Hear Case On Pupil’s Use of Religious Images


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts K-12 Groups Back Racial Diversity as Supreme Court Schedules Affirmative Action Arguments
Teachers' unions and school administrator groups ask the court to uphold the consideration of race to achieve a diverse student body.
5 min read
In this June 8, 2021 photo, with dark clouds overhead, the Supreme Court is seen in Washington.
The U.S. Supreme Court in October will hear arguments in a pair of cases about the consideration of race in college admissions.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Law & Courts In a Chat, Two U.S. Supreme Court Justices Talk Civics, Media Literacy
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett discussed civics education in a recorded interview presented by the Ronald Reagan Institute.
3 min read
Civics Justices 07292022 172183035
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Law & Courts Conservative Parent Group Sues School District Over Curriculum That Discusses Race and Gender
The lawsuit, among the first to cite a state law curbing discussions of those topics, could have broad implications for school districts.
9 min read
Image of a pending lawsuit.
Law & Courts Appeals Court Revives Student's Free Speech Suit Over Antisemitic Social Media Post
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit reinstated a case involving an off-campus post referring to the extermination of Jews.
3 min read
Image of a gavel