Couple sues school district, alleging their religious expression was muzzled

Tuesday, June 6, 2000

A couple has sued a Tennessee public school district accusing it of hindering their fundamental rights by censoring a Christian message they wanted to use in connection with a school fundraising project.

Thomas and Melody Horne, who have a daughter enrolled at a Hamilton County elementary school, donated $50 to the district’s “Commemorative Brick Project,” which was intended to raise funds to purchase library books, science equipment, computers and other equipment for a new school. The Hornes’ donation purchased a brick on which they were entitled to inscribe any message of up to two lines; the brick would become part of a walkway adjacent to the front entrance of a new elementary school.

In early March, the Hornes submitted their inscription to district officials. Their brick was to include their daughter’s nickname, “Hope,” and the phrase “To the Glory of God.” The county superintendent told the Hornes that no reference to God would be allowed on any of the bricks. The Hornes then submitted and were denied a request for an inscription of “Soli Deo Gloria,” the Latin translation of “To the Glory of God.”

In late April, the Hamilton County School Board affirmed the decision by the superintendent to refuse the Hornes’ request for a religious inscription on the brick.

Yesterday, the Hornes, represented by the socially conservative American Center for Law and Justice, sued the school board and several district officials in federal court, seeking a court declaration that the officials’ actions were unconstitutional and an injunction to force the district to allow the religious message to be inscribed on the brick.

The school board and officials “have prevented Plaintiffs from exercising their sincerely held religious beliefs, solely for the reason that Plaintiffs’ proposed speech is religious,” the ACLJ argued in its 19-page complaint.

The ACLJ argues further that the school officials’ denial violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment because “it singles out religious material for hostility and entangles government in the determination of what is religious speech by private persons.”

Stuart Roth, a senior attorney for the ACLJ, said the district could not constitutionally allow all messages except religious ones to be used in the fundraising program.

“The school district permitted the use of wide variety of messages,” Roth said. “It cannot single out the religious message and treat it differently. That represents both content — and viewpoint — based discrimination — a clear violation of our clients’ constitutional rights.”

Superintendent Jesse B. Register would not comment on the ACLJ’s lawsuit. He did, however, issue a statement in which he said he was confident the school board would “take a careful look at the existing policy and current case law relating to this issue in hopes of defining parameters that are consistent with the diverse beliefs held by the community in which we live.”