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School District Violated Rights

Federal judge rules school system discriminated when administrators removed bricks with the Latin cross symbol on them.

A group of Sterling parents sued the school district, and a federal judge has ruled in their favor.

U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris, in a decision made public last week, concluded that the school district violated the parents’ constitutional rights to free speech.

Four families of Potomac Falls High School students accused the school district of discrimination, when administrators removed six bricks inscribed with the Latin cross from the front “walkway of fame.”

Cacheris, in a 50-page ruling this month, ordered the school administrators to return the bricks. He wrote that the school district “censored” the purchasers who chose the cross as their symbol.

“Those students who believed that their high school career was marked by their faith were not permitted to celebrate their accomplishments, while the school allowed those who engaged in any number of athletic endeavors to inscribe their achievements on the ‘walk of life,’” he wrote.

The judge cited several court cases underscoring his decision that a school may not deny benefits to families based solely on their religious viewpoint. By removing the crosses, Loudoun County Public Schools had taken a stand: “Those who honor a star athlete may adorn their bricks with a symbol, but those who honor a pious student may not,” Cacheris wrote.

PARENTS ASSOCIATED with the School (PAWS) held a fund-raising project three years ago, selling engraved bricks to pay tribute to students, coaches, teachers and others as a “lasting memory.” PAWS obtained permission for the project from the principal and assistant superintendent of support services, the court document said.

The parents said they “never intended for the brick walkway to be a place for … students to express religious, philosophical or political beliefs,” the court document said.

People bought the bricks, which were regular red pavers, and had names, graduation dates, slogans and symbols etched with lasers. They paid $5 extra to have a symbol, such as soccer balls, thespians masks, lacrosse sticks and crosses, engraved on them. The cross was the only religious symbol.

Someone complained about the crosses, and the school district replaced all six of them with new bricks minus the religious symbols. On March 25, 2003, the School Board adopted a new policy that limited the inscriptions to names and dates.

THE PARENTS filed suit against the Loudoun County Public Schools, including the School Board, the superintendent and the principal.

Patti Demmon and her husband, John, were among the parents who sued. “We were thrilled that justice was served,” she said Sunday. “We did feel strongly that we needed to pursue this so … my kids will have an understanding of what their rights are and how they can defend their faith.”

She also said she hoped that people would gain an accurate understanding of what the law actually said in regard to issues of this sort.

The Demmon’s three children, Lauren, Beth and Steve, had been involved in many extracurricular activities during high school. Their common denominator was the Bible Club. “They wanted to be remembered for their faith,” she said. Lauren and Beth already have graduated and Steve is a senior. He was named Homecoming King last weekend.

THE SCHOOL DISTRICT had argued that the case was moot, because they removed the crosses as a forum for expression.

Cacheris disagreed, “Restricting the bricks to names and dates does not undo the fact that only bricks containing the Latin cross were removed from the walkway while bricks containing non-religious symbols remain,” the judge wrote.

He also wrote, “The Court holds that a reasonable observer would not interpret the Latin crosses on the bricks as an ‘unmistakable endorsement’ of the Christian faith,” he wrote.

Cacheris questioned why the school district allowed the tree symbol to stand for the “tree of knowledge’ when it too could carry a religious connotation. He cited the book of Genesis in the Bible, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.”

The judge wrote that private speech does not lose its protection under the First Amendment simply because it contains a religious message. “The Latin cross on the bricks constitutes protected speech under the First Amendment,” according to his ruling.

Terri Nickerson, another parent in the lawsuit, said she and her husband, Roger Marcum, hoped the court decision would establish a precedent. “My daughter (Nicole) wasn’t into sports and all as much as she was into her religion,” the mother said. “We thought this was one way we could profess our faith.”

Nickerson pointed out that the parents did not seek financial damages; instead, they just wanted the bricks returned. She said she was tired of “so many rights being taken away.”

“What one person says, takes the rights away from so many people,” she said. “This was ‘the majority rules,’ rather than the ‘minority.’”

Alan Hansen and his wife Karen applauded the court decision. They had wanted to place the Latin cross and winged shoes in honor of their son Jonathan, who participated in track, cross country and the Bible Club. “It was the reasonable thing to do,” Alan Hansen said. “That’s the way we do things in this country. We are many walks, many places, trying to do our best to work together and live together.”