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Tennessee officials relent, allow 'religious' bricks outside school

By The Associated Press

08.03.00

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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Two commemorative bricks inscribed with religious messages will be included in the entrance of a new public elementary school after all.

The Hamilton County School District on Aug. 1 reversed an earlier decision to exclude the bricks, deciding instead to allow them and settle a federal lawsuit filed by the American Center for Law and Justice.

The lawsuit, which was filed in June, argued that the school district's exclusion of the bricks violated the free-speech rights of parents Melody and Tom Horne, who bought one of the bricks for $50 as part of a fund-raiser at Westview Elementary School.

The Hornes ordered the brick in honor of their daughter, Hope, and requested the inscription: "Hope Horne, To the Glory of God." They were told at the time they could inscribe the brick as they wished.

The lawsuit charged that the school board and officials "prevented Plaintiffs from exercising their sincerely held religious beliefs, solely for the reason that Plaintiffs' proposed speech is religious."

A second family, Brian and Robyn Smith, asked that "Praying for You and Westview" be etched on a brick on behalf of their son, Andrew. The Smiths did not participate in the lawsuit.

In May, the school district chose to exclude the two bricks from the walkway, deciding that they represented an endorsement of religion.

"The initial reaction was more surprise at the denial than anything," Brian Smith said. "This was a message to our son that someone is praying for you and your school, nothing more."

In the settlement, the school district agreed to include both bricks in the new walkway, and to pay the ACLJ $7,500 in attorneys fees.

In return, the ACLJ agreed to drop its lawsuit.

Stuart J. Roth, director of the ACLJ office in Mobile, Ala., said the decision sent a clear message that schools could not discriminate against religious speech. The ACLJ is a public-interest law firm founded by conservative broadcaster Pat Robertson.

"Our position was clear from the outset, that our clients had the right to have a brick inscribed with a religious message," he said.

Deputy Superintendent Robert Smith had recommended that the bricks be excluded from the project on the advice of school board attorney Jack Benson. His recommendation was later upheld by the school board.

Robert Smith declined to comment on the settlement, referring all questions to Benson. Benson , who was out of town and could not be reached for comment, had said at the time of the recommendation that "you cannot enhance any religion with the use of public funds."

Superintendent Jesse Register did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The walkway and inscribed bricks will lead from the drive to the front door of the new Westview school, set to open this fall. About $15,000 for the walkway was raised through the sale of the commemorative bricks.

Brian Smith said that though he and his wife did not join the lawsuit, they still felt strongly that their brick belonged in front of the school.

"Number one, I couldn't quite understand how our message enhanced religion. And number two, there was no use of public funds. We paid for it," he said.

A similar incident occurred in Oswego County, N.Y., when bricks inscribed with Jesus' name were removed from the entrance of Mexico High School.

The Mexico School Board adopted a policy prohibiting any political, religious or profane expressions on bricks after some in the community complained that inscribing the name "Jesus" was inappropriate.

In that case, one of the residents who purchased a brick that read "Jesus Saves" hired a lawyer from the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute to represent him.

A lawsuit is expected to be filed in federal court this week against the Mexico school board, according to a representative from the Rutherford Institute.

Update

Ministers sue N.Y. school district over 'religious' bricks
Officials violated residents' free-speech, equal-protection rights by not allowing Christian messages to be inscribed on sidewalk, federal lawsuit alleges.  09.11.00

Previous

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

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