Student’s drawings censored for including religious images

Thursday, November 4, 1999

A 7-year-old and his parents are seeking a federal court order that a New York public school district unconstitutionally kept the student's Christian drawings from being displayed on school grounds.

On Nov.1, the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian group based in Orlando, Fla., sued a public school district in upstate New York, claiming school officials acted with hostility to religion by censoring religious drawings by a kindergartner. According to the group's 16-page complaint, school officials for the Baldwinsville Central School District, in suburban Syracuse, violated the religious liberties of Antonio Peck, then a kindergartner at Catherine McNamara Elementary School.

Last year, Antonio's teacher asked students to create posters about the environment. The instructions Antonio received said the posters would be displayed in the school and that the students “may use pictures or words, drawn or cut out of magazines or computer drawn by the children depicting ways to save our environment.”

Antonio submitted a poster that included a depiction of Jesus praying, the Ten Commandments and the statement: “The only way to save the Earth.” Antonio's teacher refused the poster, saying it was too religious in nature, and asked Antonio to submit another.

Antonio's second poster depicted children recycling trash in front of a church as off to one side a man in a flowing robe knelt down with his hands outstretched to the sky.

Although Antonio's teacher accepted his second poster, it was displayed with the section depicting the robed man folded over. The Liberty Counsel claims that “the folding back of the religious poster so that it could not be viewed made the poster look silly as it was only a fraction of the size of the other posters, thus leaving the impression that the school was hostile toward [Antonio's] religious artwork.”

Antonio's teacher and Principal Robert Crème both cited a school board policy that states school activities “should neither advance nor inhibit religion,” in justifying their actions toward Antonio's drawings.

Mat Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, said the school district had violated Antonio's free exercise of religion and acted with hostility toward religion in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

“Students in public schools have the right to express their beliefs about religion in the form of art work,” Staver said in a prepared statement. “The school clearly [censored] the poster because of its religious content.”

In the Liberty Counsel complaint, Staver cited guidelines on religious expression in the public schools that were issued in 1995 by the Clinton administration. The guidelines were created by a wide array of religious-liberty experts, including Charles Haynes, the First Amendment Center's senior scholar. The guidelines state that “students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.”

Theodore Gilkey, the school district's superintendent, told the Syracuse Herald American that no official had violated Antonio's constitutional rights because his drawings were not relevant to the assignment.

“In making the determination, both the building principal and the classroom teacher were looking at the substance and relevance of the material that was submitted in comparison [with] the task that was assigned,” Gilkey said.

Staver said that before Antonio's suit was filed, Crème and Gilkey had met with Staver and claimed the religious content of the drawings concerned them.

“I think when school districts are challenged in these types of situations, they fall back on a defense that the schoolwork was not relevant to the assignment,” Staver said. “The school administrators equated Antonio's religious expression to at least offensive behavior. But this student did not have a captive audience. This was a situation where a student's religious drawing was displayed along with other student posters — it was obvious this was student artwork.”