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Ministers sue N.Y. school district over 'religious' bricks

By The Associated Press


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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 Syracuse.

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 plaintiffs.

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 officials.

"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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Couple sues school district, alleging their religious expression was muzzled
Tennessee school officials refused to allow religious message to be inscribed on brick to be used in new school.  06.06.00