Federal judge: School properly refused to display student’s religious artwork

Wednesday, March 1, 2000

A federal judge has ruled that a New York public school student's free-speech and religious-liberty rights were not violated when his principal and teacher refused to allow his artwork, containing Christian images, to be displayed at school.

In an 18-page opinion, the judge agreed with Baldwinsville school officials that the student's drawings failed to comply with the teacher's assignment about protecting the environment.

Represented by the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, 7-year-old Antonio Peck and his mother sued the student's principal and teacher last November, claiming the school acted unconstitutionally and with hostility toward the student's religious beliefs.

Last June, Antonio's teacher, Susan Weichert, asked the Catherine McNamara Elementary students to create posters depicting their understanding of environmental concerns. Weichert also told the students their work would be displayed on a wall near the school's cafeteria.

Antonio first submitted a drawing that depicted Jesus praying with two children on a rock, the Ten Commandments and other Christian themes. The drawing also included the handwritten message, “The only way to save our World.” Weichert, with Principal Robert Crème's support, refused to display the poster and asked Peck to try again. His second poster showed children picking up trash in front of a church and a kneeling man with his hands outstretched to the sky. Again with Crème's approval, Weichert accepted the poster, but displayed it with the portion containing the kneeling man folded over.

In mid-February, U.S. District Judge Norman A. Mordue dismissed the entire lawsuit, saying that Weichert's actions toward Antonio were reasonable and did not infringe on his speech or religious liberties.

“The purpose of the poster display was to enhance the children's learning experience and to present the students' schoolwork to their parents to show them what they had learned in the study of the environment,” Mordue wrote in Peck v. Baldwinsville Central School District. “Clearly, this expressive activity occurred in connection with traditional educational activity supervised by faculty members and designed to impart particular knowledge or skills to students.”

Mordue noted in the Feb. 15 ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public school officials can constitutionally exercise great control over student speech in school-sponsored activities as long as their actions are “reasonably related” to educational concerns.

Weichert told the court that neither of Antonio's drawings complied with her assignment.

“My concerns were purely educational,” Weichert testified. “Each poster was not responsive to the assignment given, and, if displayed, would have tended to create a false impression of the District's educational practices and curriculum by implying that the District taught that religion or God would save the environment. Each poster might have confused highly impressionable kindergarten students who could have thought that praying was a teacher-endorsed correct answer to the question of how to save the environment, or a valid response to the assignment despite what had been taught in class.”

The Liberty Counsel and Jo Ann Peck, Antonio's mother, countered that no person could have construed the posters' images to be school-endorsed.

“Within the context of one poster among many, and specifically with the poster containing Antonio Peck's crayon written signature, there is no way a reasonable observer, whether at kindergarten or adult level, would object, or would understand that the poster was an endorsement by the school of religion or that the class taught religion,” Jo Ann Peck testified. “The poster was clearly and obviously that of a child and as such should have been displayed.”

Mordue, however, said the school officials' concerns were legitimate and that it was not the court's place to second-guess those concerns.

Mordue also concluded that the school's actions were not hostile toward religious expression and therefore did not constitute an establishment-clause violation. He said the only message conveyed by the school officials' actions was that “a poster with exclusively or predominantly religious content was not appropriate in the particular context of the assignment.”

Erik Stanley, a Liberty Counsel attorney, said the group filed a motion yesterday asking the judge to reconsider his ruling. Stanley said if Mordue refused to reconsider the dismissal, then an appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would be sought.

“Antonio has First Amendment rights to include religious beliefs in his assignments,” Stanley said. “We believe that the school's actions in censoring his work demonstrates a hostility on the school's part toward Antonio's religious beliefs.”