Legal battles over when and where to draw the church-state line on school endorsement of religion can be a nightmare for administrators, a headache for judges and a payday for lawyers.
Consider the recent lawsuit in Lubbock, Texas over an advertisement a company called Little Pencil wanted to display during the football games played at the local high school.
The ad featured a depiction of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns with words like “outcast,” “addicted” and “jealous” tattooed across his upper body (symbolizing the belief that Jesus took on the sins of the world).
The owner of Little Pencil, David Miller, figured that if you want to reach kids with a biblical message, the jumbotron in the local high school football stadium is probably an effective place to advertise – especially in the state of Texas where religious fervor can reach fever pitch on Friday nights.
But school officials rejected Miller’s ad, worried that the religious message would be perceived as being endorsed by the school in violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. Administrators also argued that the image contradicted the school’s policy banning students from having visible tattoos.
Miller sued, claiming that school officials had violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. In March, Miller lost his case when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision in favor of the school district. (Little Pencil, LLC v. Lubbock Independent School District)
The court ruled that it was reasonable for the district to worry about the appearance of crossing the line separating church and state if the tattooed Jesus was displayed on the jumbotron.
Meanwhile in California, a state court of appeals handed down a decision in Sedlock v. Baird, another case involving the appearance of school endorsement of religion – with a very different result.
At issue in Sedlock were yoga classes taught in the Encinitas, California school district. A group of parents sued, charging that teaching yoga in public schools is unconstitutional state promotion of religion.
To avoid any appearance of school endorsement of religion, Encinitas school officials had stripped the yoga courses of Sanskrit terms and eliminated all references to the religious origins and meanings of yoga postures.
Although the objecting parents argued that yoga is inherently religious and cannot be separated from its Hindu roots, the court sided with school officials. Yoga as practiced in the school, the court ruled, is secular in purpose and effect – and therefore doesn’t rise to the level of state establishment of religion.
Whatever you think of the result in these two cases – and reasonable people can disagree about what constitutes school endorsement of religion – you can take comfort in the fact that school officials in both communities appear to be trying hard not to take sides in religion.
That’s good news because government neutrality toward religion is an essential condition of religious freedom – especially in public schools where impressionable young people are a captive audience.
For better and for worse, messy, wacky cases about tattoos and yoga postures are a necessary and inevitable part of upholding the First Amendment in our pluralistic democracy.