ACLU Defense of Religious Freedom Lost on Virginia Students

This post has been corrected.

Here’s a fascinating story for people who struggle to understand the difference between individual expression and government-endorsed displays of religion – and why the two are not the same.

The Floyd County School District in Floyd, Va. has been embroiled in a back-and-forth battle over the religious displays in all its schools of the Ten Commandments. In the latest controversy over the issue, 200 students walked out in protest Monday over the school board’s latest decision to ban them.

The whole brouhaha started in December when the school board voted to remove the displays after the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent the district a letter notifying it that it was in violation of the Constitution. In response, the board voted to take down them down.

But a few days later, board members changed their minds after 100 people attended a board meeting demanding the displays be reinstated. The next day they were put back up.

Last month, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent the board another letter saying that two anonymous students, offended by the religious displays, would be suing the district. FFRF is working with the Virginia affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. The displays came back down.

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting. For people who don’t understand the principles of the ACLU, this is a textbook example of how it can, at the same time, defend the right to practice one’s faith, but fight First Amendment violations of government-endorsed religion.

In response to the removal of the school displays, student members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Floyd County High School taped copies of the Ten Commandments on their lockers. The high school allows students to display personal messages on their lockers, like “Go Team” and “Happy Birthday, Suzy,” so, they argued, they should be allowed to display statements related to their faith.

The TV station WSLS reported:

School officials would not confirm to WSLS what happened, but did reveal their policy on posting to lockers.  Principal Barry Hollandsworth said while approval is needed for flyers and announcements, he said notes such as happy birthday and well wishes for sports games do not need approval.

In response, the Virginia ACLU sent a letter to the district, defending the students’ right to display the Ten Commandments. Liberty Counsel, a Christian law firm that frequently defends government-sponsored religious displays, also sent a letter defending students’ rights to expression.

“Schools have the authority to ban all displays on school property,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis, in a news release. “But if a school allows students to post some kinds of personal messages on their lockers, it must also allow other kinds of messages, including those that have religious content The removal of the Ten Commandments from student lockers at Floyd County High School appears to violate the First Amendment rights of students by discriminating against religious expression,” added Willis in the release.

“The Supreme Court recognizes the difference between school officials’ imposing religious messages on students, which violates the establishment clause, and school officials allowing students to express their own views on religion in situations that are not school-organized or sponsored,” said Glenberg in the release.

So, what did the students do in response? They held a protest. Not because of the locker displays, but because of the removal of the government-sanctioned displays. On Monday, about 200 students walked out of school to rally in opposition to the district’s decision to remove the Ten Commandments from district property.

What bothers me the most are the remarks from students that if you don’t want God forced down your throat in this community, well, then you should just move away.

“This is Giles County and Christ is a big, big, big part of Giles County. For those who don’t like it, go somewhere else,” shouted one student.  She was greeted by a round of cheers from the crowd.

The students prayed and then one by one students spoke out on the reasons they wanted the Ten Commandments placed back in their school.

“This is America and we can have our Ten Commandments and if they don’t like it, they can get out,” said one boy.

What’s so sad is that this could be a valuable civics lesson to the district’s students. I like to see kids protesting and engaging in civil discourse as much as the next American with a strong anti-authoritarian streak. But the issue of what they were protesting appears to have gone over many of their heads.

I really hope that some civics teachers in the district are using this as an opportunity to educate their students that the Bill of Rights is not subject to majority rule and that the rights spelled out the constitutional amendments apply to every individual.

Perhaps the teachers could teach students that our Founding Fathers wrote the Bill of Rights to prevent government from forcing religion on its citizens and so that no one could be forced to leave their community because they object to having their constitutional rights infringed upon.

h/t to Jim Reed

CORRECTION: This post originally incorrectly noted that Floyd High School is in Giles County, Virginia. It is in Floyd County.