School board sued over policy that bans Star of David

Monday, August 23, 1999

Despite agreeing to reconsider a district-wide policy banning the Star of David as a possible gang symbol, a Mississippi school district faces a federal lawsuit charging it with violating a student's speech and religious-liberty rights.

The Harrison County School Board met in private late on Aug. 19 with its attorneys and decided to rethink an 11th-grader's request to wear his Star of David necklace to school. The board said it planned to reconsider its gang policy at a meeting on Sept. 7.

Almost two weeks ago Ryan Green and his father were told by two Harrison Central High School officials that the Star of David was not permitted to be worn openly on school grounds because it was considered a possible gang symbol and barred under school district policy.

The policy prohibits students from wearing anything that could be construed as gang-related. The school board defended and upheld the policy at a public meeting on Aug. 16, saying it only wanted to prevent violence from erupting on campus and to keep students safe.

David Ingebretsen, executive director of the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization was aware of the board's decision to reconsider the policy. Nonetheless, Ingrebretsen said the suit was justified because “Ryan's First Amendment rights had already been violated by school officials.”

The Mississippi ACLU's challenge, Green v. Harrison County School District, seeks a court declaration that the school-gang policy is an unconstitutional infringement on Ryan's free-speech and religious-liberty rights. It also asks for a preliminary injunction against enforcement.

“Prohibiting a student of Jewish heritage from wearing the Star of David on a necklace is clearly unconstitutional, and the violation is even more clear when the school district allows students expressing a Christian faith and heritage to wear a Christian cross,” the ACLU argues in its complaint. “And it goes without saying that the Constitution is violated when the government allows adherents of one religious faith or heritage to express its views, while those of another faith or heritage, perhaps less favored, are denied the same freedom.”

Ingebretsen says Harrison Central High School has violent gangs that use a Christian cross as their symbol but that students have not been told to leave their crosses at home or conceal them under their T-shirts.

“There are organizations with a reputation for violence — the Ku Klux Klan is one — who have appropriated the Christian cross as their own symbol,” the ACLU claims in its complaint. “But the Harrison County School District has singled out the venerated symbol of the Jewish faith, and not the Christian cross. This is a double standard. It reflects an insensitivity which may result from the fact that the overwhelming majority of students, parents, and citizens in the area are Christian, while the minority are Jewish.”

Randy Williams, the school board president, told the Sun Herald, a Biloxi/Gulfport daily, that the board was not concerned about the ACLU's lawsuit. Williams and other school officials said the policy was created because two area gangs use a six-point star — like the Star of David — as their symbol.

The ACLU argues that the school district's policy sweeps too broadly and ensnares students' rights.

“Here, the school district apparently is claiming that because the Star of David is similar to some 'gang' symbol that has used a variation on a six-point star, the district has the right — in the name of school safety — to pull the Star of David off the necks of children of Jewish heritage,” the group argues. “However, it is simply ludicrous to suggest that school safety at Harrison Central High School will be jeopardized if Ryan Green is allowed to express his Jewish heritage by wearing the Star of David. While parents, teachers, and administrators have a justifiable concern for safety in the school, this should not lead to an irrational abandonment of constitutional principles.”

The ACLU cited as support an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 1997 that invalidated a public school anti-gang policy forbidding students from openly displaying tattoos of crosses. The appeals court in Stephenson v. Davenport Community School District ruled that although the school district viewed the student's cross as a gang symbol, a “significant portion of the world's population views it as a representation of their Christian religious faith.” The court concluded in its ruling that the gang policy “sweeps within its parameters constitutionally protected speech.”