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Court: Religious Items' Removal Did Not Violate Teacher's Rights

York County School officials did not violate a teacher's First Amendment rights when they removed Christian-themed postings from his classroom, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
( [email protected] ) May 03, 2007 06:33 PM EDT

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - York County School officials did not violate a teacher's First Amendment rights when they removed Christian-themed postings from his classroom, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith.

The materials were removed from William Lee's Spanish classroom at Tabb High School at the start of the 2004-05 school year after a parent complained. The materials included a flier publicizing the National Day of Prayer, a depiction of George Washington praying at Valley Forge and articles about President Bush's religious faith and former Attorney General John Ashcroft's prayer meetings with his employees.

Lee claimed his classroom bulletin boards were a limited public forum open for teachers' private expression and speech. Beach and the appeals court, however, agreed with school officials who argued they had discretion to remove the items.

"Because the removed items constitute school-sponsored speech bearing the imprimatur of the school, and they were designed to impart particular knowledge to the students at Tabb High, the items are curricular in nature," Judge Robert King wrote.

"The items do not constitute speech on a matter of public concern and are not protected by the First Amendment."

Robert W. McFarland, attorney for the school officials, said he was pleased that the court backed his clients' authority over the classroom postings.

"A ruling to the contrary would mean that potentially anything and everything could be deemed a First Amendment matter that the school couldn't regulate," he said.

John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, which often takes on religious freedom cases, said it would petition the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case.

"If teachers are so constrained that they have no latitude, I think they're going to have trouble teaching," Whitehead said.

Lee's attorney, Gary A. Bryant, had argued that school officials were guilty of viewpoint discrimination when deciding certain postings in Lee's classroom were "too religious" but allowing others to remain.

Among the items left alone were materials about the religious practices of Inca and Mayan civilizations, a photo of Boy Scouts praying in memory of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and an article and photo of an aircraft-carrier flight technician with "Pray for America" written on his helmet.

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