Ministers sue N.Y. school district over 'religious' bricks
By The Associated Press
MEXICO, N.Y. Michael Havens thought he had a great idea for
his students to raise money: Sell bricks to members of the community and allow
personal messages to be etched on them, then use the bricks to repave the
sidewalk in front of the high school.
"It was beautiful," said Havens, who saw a similar sidewalk during a
trip to Idaho a couple of years ago. "We have a beautiful Georgian building,
and changing the blacktopped front entranceway to nicely, personally engraved
bricks seemed like a nice idea."
But when a few brick buyers wanted their religious sentiments
inscribed, tempers flared in this village of 1,500 about 30 miles north of
Now the school district is being sued in a battle of constitutional
issues freedom of speech v. the separation of church and state
and Havens, the former superintendent, is long gone.
Three residents two of them ministers filed suit Sept.
7 in U.S. District Court in Albany, charging the district with violating their
free-speech and equal-protection rights. The case is expected to go to trial in
the spring, said Steven H. Aden of the Rutherford Institute, the Virginia-based
legal aid society for conservative religious causes that is representing the
One of the litigants, the Rev. Ronald Russell, pastor of the Church of
God, helped ignite the dispute when he bought a handful of bricks for his son
Joshua's graduating class of 1999. Russell had two Christian messages etched on
them: "Jesus Saves" and "Jesus Christ is the Lord of this School."
"I thought it was a great idea, tremendous," said Russell. "They were
a great fund-raiser and really enhanced the school's look."
But Betsy Passer, who is Jewish, didn't like what she saw on the
sidewalk in front of Mexico Academy and Central School and challenged district
"I wasn't against the bricks," said Passer, whose husband teaches math
at the school. "I was for some guidelines. They were allowing people to put
whatever they wanted on them. So we went over, walked the walk, wrote down the
ones we had objections to and tried to talk with them about it. We tried to
discuss this with them for a long time."
Initially, district officials moved the bricks in question under a
bush. Then, after some legal advice, they placed a metal plaque on the brick
path: "The messages on this walk are the personal expressions and contributions
of the individuals of Mexico Academy and Central School Community."
Passer was not placated, so she bought her own brick in February and
had "Keep Abortion Legal" inscribed on it. "I feel very strongly about a
woman's right to control her body," she said.
School officials blocked her purchase, then removed the bricks
inscribed with "Jesus" and revised the rules to prohibit such references.
Havens, who had been a fixture in the 2,800-student district for 24
years before leaving for another district in April, said the district lawyer
advised that the bricks inappropriately promoted Christianity.
"I didn't want to, but I had to put them in a position where they
could see that a plaque from them saying these are contributions to the Mexico
Academy and Central School community was not enough," said Passer. "We are not
of that belief system. This is a public school. If you want private values, you
go to private schools."
That prompted an outcry in a community which has eight churches, four
of them within 100 feet of one another, on Church Street.
In March, Russell erected a big wooden cross on a hill next to his
church with this message tacked across the front: "Welcome to Mexico! A Town
Where Jesus Christ Is Not Welcomed in the Schools." He removed the sign after
about 10 days.
"We made a statement with it," Russell said. "There's no doubt
everybody takes sides on an issue like this, and that's a shame because it
wasn't meant to be provocative."
Hadwen Hinman, a former mayor and graduate of the school system,
expressed his own views with a sign in his front yard: "Jesus Christ is Still
Lord of This School."
"I'm a disciple of Jesus Christ, first of all," said Hinman, 72.
"Secondly, the Constitution was written by the principles of the Bible, and to
deny people the right to put a brick in that says 'Jesus Saves' or 'Jesus is
Christ' is against my right in the First Amendment."
Five churches launched a campaign, distributing pins, signs and bumper
stickers printed with the message "Jesus is Lord." Several businesses along
Main Street joined them, posting "Jesus Is Lord" signs in their windows.
"The bricks were like a final straw of a continuation of the policy of
zero access and freedom of gathering, freedom of speech," said 43-year-old Paul
Anderson, one of the litigants and assistant pastor at Believers Chapel. "It
was the catalyst for a bunch of pastors to get together."
Duane Comes, who graduated from the high school in June, said a lot of
people were tired of the whole ordeal.
"A lot of people are getting annoyed with it now," Comes said. "They
think that it should be over. But I keep telling everybody, 'What if it was
you, what if it was your brick, your opinion or your belief?' You're not going
to want it taken away."'
But interim superintendent Robert DiFlorio said the looming legal
battle is something taxpayers cannot afford to fight.
"This district is poor," DiFlorio said. "If this is a form of
punishment, it's not a very Christian attitude."
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