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Appeals court upholds Columbine's ban on religious tiles

By The Associated Press

06.28.02

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DENVER — A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that Columbine High School administrators acted properly when they refused to hang ceramic tiles with religious symbols painted by the families of two slain students.

The decision from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling, which had ordered school officials to restore the tiles.

The 4-inch tiles were painted in a project to renovate the school, where two student gunmen killed 12 students, a teacher and themselves on April 20, 1999.

School officials refused to hang the religious-themed tiles, saying they violated the Constitution's requirement for separation of church and state.

The Virginia-based Rutherford Institute — a conservative group focused on religious-freedom cases — sued in 1999 on behalf of the families who painted the tiles, arguing their First Amendment rights had been violated.

A U.S. District Court judge agreed, and in October he ordered the district to hang the tiles.

Jefferson County Public Schools appealed because officials believed they had a right to control what appeared on school walls, district spokeswoman Marilyn Saltzman said. Tiles with symbols of anarchy and a head dripping blood were also banned, she said.

The appeals court said if the school cannot have some control over speech, it could be required to post tiles with inflammatory statements such as "God is Hate."

"When posed with such a choice, schools may very well elect not to sponsor speech at all, thereby limiting speech instead of increasing it," the ruling said.

Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead said the group would appeal to the Supreme Court.

Sue Petrone, mother of slain Columbine student Daniel Rohrbough, painted a tile with a yellow cross, a red heart and her son's name, even though she was told beforehand it would violate the rules.

Her husband, Rich Petrone, and daughter Nicole also painted tiles the school refused to hang.

Rich Petrone said yesterday the school invited families to express their feelings on the tiles. He said the district's fight to ban the tiles is "like throwing salt on our wounds."

"All this for a little 4-by-4 tile that nobody would even notice, except the parents of the kids that died," he said.

Rohrbough's father, Brian Rohrbough, said the ruling threatened free speech.

"They effectively said the government has the right to control the speech of a private citizen in a public forum, and I think that's a dangerous precedent," he said.

The tile project began in 1996 to allow art students to decorate the school after a renovation.

After the 1999 attack, parents and friends of the victims, along with students and alumni, were invited to paint tiles.

Saltzman said school officials were willing to help the victims' families find a place to display their tiles off school grounds.

"We are concerned and continue to express our care and concern for the families. This has been difficult for all of us," Saltzman said.

Update

High court refuses to consider fight over Columbine memorial
Justices won't hear appeal from victims' parents who want to include references to God on tiles.  01.14.03

Previous

Columbine families ask court to uphold ruling in memorial-tile case
School district has appeal federal judge's order requiring school to hang religious-themed panels.  01.26.02

Related

Paving the way for controversy
Washington library halts sale of engraved tiles after prolonged fight over free speech, separation of church and state.  10.12.02

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