Judge: School can't ban 'God' from posters

MT. JULIET, Tenn. — In a victory for a group of five Christian parents, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction May 1 preventing a Tennessee elementary school from censoring posters advertising the popular National Day of Prayer and See You at the Pole events.

The order by U.S. District Judge Robert L. Echols comes days before Thursday's National Day of Prayer observance and more than seven months after a controversy began when officials with Lakeview Elementary School in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., prevented certain posters advertising last September's See You at the Pole to be displayed as submitted. Advised by an assistant principal, who said the posters violated district policy, the parents covered up Bible verses as well as phrases such as "In God We Trust" and "God Bless America." The assistant principal says she remembers seeing only Bible verses and not the other phrases when she told the parents that the posters couldn't be displayed as-is.

The Christian legal organization Alliance Defense subsequently sued the school on behalf of the parents, claiming the school's actions — as well as the school's policy — violated the parents' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The school's policy requires the posters to state only the time, place, date and location of the event and also to get pre-approval from a school administrator, usually the principal or the director of schools, before a poster is displayed.

In his injunction order, Echols said the parents likely would succeed in a trial.

"Requiring the Plaintiffs to cover all religious speech on the posters under the guise of a reasonable time, place and manner restriction reflects a misunderstanding of law, with the result that the Defendants stifled religious speech, while the restrictions imposed to stifle the speech were neither reasonable nor viewpoint neutral," Echols wrote.

Events such as See You at the Pole and the National Day of Prayer are non-curricular activities at the school and are led by students and their parents. The parents claimed that under the school's policy, they would not be able to post official National Day of Prayer posters this year because the posters had the word "prayer" and also had a Bible verse, Psalm 33:22.

Echols' order prevents the school from using its policy "to suppress religious speech on posters that are created by students and parents" in publicizing the two events "unless any school regulation restricting religious speech on posters is reasonable, viewpoint-neutral, and in accordance with federal law."

The policy that the school had used actually does not even mention religion, although it does say the principal "may prohibit" materials that "violate the rights of others" or "would reasonably cause students to believe that they are sponsored or endorsed by the school." Echols said previous Supreme Court and appeals court precedents prevent the school from doing what it did.

"Simply issuing or permitting a communication involving a religious organization during school hours 'does not render the communication state speech, nor does it invariably create a perception of endorsement or coercion by government officials,'" he wrote, referencing the parents' posters and citing a Fourth Circuit ruling.

It's the second time in less than two and a half years the school has found itself involved in a lawsuit over religious issues. In 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit, saying the school was too intertwined in religious events such as the National Day of Prayer. A federal court ordered the school to post a disclaimer on flyers and posters stating that the school system and administration do not endorse or sponsor the event.

That disclaimer, Echols said in his May 1 ruling, is significant. The disclaimer was on the posters that were partially covered by parents last year.

"The risk of school endorsement here was ameliorated by the presence of the disclaimer, albeit in small type font, attached to each poster," he wrote.

Echols was nominated by President George H.W. Bush.