Law & Courts

School Decision to Bar Religion on Wall Upheld

By Caroline Hendrie — November 02, 2004 1 min read
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A public school in Florida was within its rights when it ordered a student to paint over murals that featured a crucifix and various Christian messages, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The dispute arose after a high school in Boca Raton, Fla., invited students to decorate plywood boards that had been put up as temporary walls during a construction project at the school.

Sharah Harris, a member of the school’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, painted three murals, including one next to the school’s main office that featured a crucifix and the phrase “Because He Loved, He Gave.” Another said, “Jesus has time for you; do you have time for Him?,” and a third read, “God Loves You. What Part of Thou Shalt Not Didn’t You Understand? God.”

After school officials directed Ms. Harris to paint over the murals, her mother sued the 172,500-student Palm Beach County school district in federal court, alleging that the school’s actions violated the girl’s First Amendment rights. A U.S. District Court judge in Miami ruled without a trial in favor of the district, and on Oct. 12, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, affirmed that decision.

Both federal courts found that the district’s actions were justified under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which upheld a principal’s refusal to publish two school newspaper articles. In that case, the high court held that the articles amounted to school-sponsored speech and that the censorship served legitimate pedagogical interests.

In the Palm Beach County case, the 11th Circuit panel rejected arguments that the school had opened an extracurricular forum for expression and then illegally discriminated against Ms. Harris because of the religious viewpoint she expressed.

On the contrary, the court held, the painting project was a school-sponsored curricular activity, and the school was allowed to censor the murals to avoid government endorsement of religion. Another legitimate reason for the censorship, the court held, was to end the controversy and media attention that had distracted the school from its educational mission.

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