Wisconsin students accuse school of censoring religious expression

Friday, February 4, 2000

A couple of Wisconsin high school students have accused school officials of censoring their Bible club and have sought a federal judge's intervention.

Represented by the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, Sharon Gernetzke and Joseph Bezotte, both students at George N. Tremper Senior High School in Kenosha, filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against the Kenosha Unified School District and the high school's principal alleging speech and religious-liberty violations.

According to the Liberty Counsel's 18-page complaint, the students' Bible club, called Trojans Loving Christ, has been treated differently than other student clubs.

In 1998 student clubs were told they could paint murals depicting their missions on a wall near the school cafeteria. The Bible club proposed to Principal Chester Pulaski a design consisting of a heart, two doves, praying hands, a Gospel passage and a cross. Pulaski accepted all of the design elements except the cross. According to the club's complaint, Pulaski said he was concerned for the school's safety and did not want a Satanist club to form and put its symbol on the wall.

The Bible club members painted their mural without the cross, but continued to press Pulaski on the issue, claiming their free-speech and religious-liberty rights were being unduly hampered. Last October, Mat Staver, president and chief attorney for the Liberty Counsel, wrote to Superintendent Michael Johnson and Pulaski, claiming the club had rights under the First Amendment and the federal Equal Access law to paint a cross on the mural. Later that month, the Bible club met with Pulaski but was again told the cross could not be painted.

The club's lawsuit also accuses Pulaski of barring it from distributing religious tracts on school grounds. According to the suit, Pulaski told the club it could distribute the religious literature only across the street from campus.

The school's “actions constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause because Defendants have prohibited Plaintiffs' speech and free exercise of religion based upon Defendants' determination that the content of Plaintiffs' speech is religious and is not permitted on school campus,” the Liberty Counsel's complaint states.

“Defendants' limiting of religious expression to the whim of Defendants' definition of allowable religious speech constitutes hostility towards and excessive entanglement with religion,” the complaint adds.

Superintendent Johnson said that he had advised Pulaski on the Bible club's requests and said the only real issue of the case centers on the cross.

“The club has been allowed to meet and to pass out literature on campus,” Johnson said. “If the principal is making the students go across the street to pass out literature, then I think we have to readdress that issue.”

Johnson said that Pulaski has treated the Bible club fairly. The superintendent added that he supported the principal's actions, including his decision not to allow the students to paint the cross. Johnson said the legal process would reveal whether Pulaski's decision was constitutional.

Staver said that Tremper High School officials have allowed other student clubs to paint murals that include their symbols. As an example, he said the German club's mural includes a depiction of the German flag. According to Staver, the school has acted with hostility toward religious speech.

“School authorities too often believe they have absolute power over students on campus,” Staver said. “Yet, the Supreme Court has said students posses fundamental rights on school grounds, including the rights to free speech, and school administrators do not run totalitarian regimes and therefore must respect the rights of students.”

The Clinton administration issued guidelines on religious expression in the public schools in 1995, 1998 and 1999. The guidelines were based on 30 years of Supreme Court decisions beginning with a 1962 decision in Engel v. Vitale that barred government-organized prayers in public schools. The guidelines have also been endorsed by a wide array of religious and nonprofit educational groups, including The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center.

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 religious content of their submissions.” Furthermore, the guidelines note that students also have “a right to distribute religious literature to their schoolmates on the same terms as they are permitted to distribute other literature that is unrelated to school curriculum or activities.”