MIDLOTHIAN, Texas (CN) - A Texas school district reversed course on removing Christian plaques from two elementary schools after an atheist group complained, increasing the odds of litigation.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote
the Midlothian Independent School District on June 30 about a 2-by-3-foot plaque installed at the entrance of Mt. Peak Elementary on behalf of a local resident.
The plaques say: "Dedicated in the Year of Our Lord 1997 to the Education of God's Children and to their Faithful Teachers in the Name of the Holy Christian Church," and include two crosses. An identical plaque was installed at Longbranch Elementary.
The foundation, based in Wisconsin, wrote to the school district: "The district violates the Constitution when it allows its schools to display symbols or messages. Public schools may not advance, prefer, or promote religion. The plaque on the front of Mt. Peak Elementary violates this basic constitutional prohibition by creating the appearance that the school, and by extension the district, prefer religion to nonreligion and Christianity to all other religions."
The group said the plaques violate the Constitution "far more" that earlier religious displays at public schools that were rejected by federal courts, because the plaques say "the Holy Christian Church" and contain a Latin phrase meaning "glory to God alone" or "glory to the only God."
Midlothian ISD attorney John Hardy, with Hardy Cook in Tyler, responded
to the letter two weeks later, saying the plaques would be removed as requested. The plaques were soon after covered up by school officials.
The school district said Wednesday that it has not been threatened with a lawsuit yet, but said that its attorney advised that it would lose in court if it refused the request and was sued.
The school district also said that unknown persons have uncovered the plaques.
In a brief news conference Thursday, Superintendent Jerome Stewart said that "as a district employee, my personal beliefs and opinions in this constitutional matter must be secondary to the current interpretation of the law of the land."
He said the district will seek additional, outside legal counsel and has no plans to cover the plaques again.
The district's about-face comes after two days of protests by approximately 100 students and parents at the school administration building, NBC-affiliate KXAS reported.
Stewart's statement to not cover the plaques again was met with cheers.
The Liberty Institute - a Plano, Texas-based religious freedom group - applauded Stewart's announcement Thursday.
"Our preliminary investigation of the Midlothian plaque issue leads us to believe the school district created a limited public forum for plaques relating to the topic of the building dedication," said Hiram Sasser, the group's litigation director. "The plaque at issue is thus private speech and the First Amendment prohibits the government from censoring private speech simply because of its religious viewpoint."
Midlothian is 25 miles southwest of Dallas.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation made headlines in July when it successfully sued
the Internal Revenue Service for its refusal to go after churches that illegally preach politics from the pulpit in violation of the Johnson Amendment of 1954. The IRS agreed to no longer have a "blanket policy" of non-enforcement.