Federal appeals court allows Columbine to censor religious tiles

COLORADO — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuitruled June 27 that family and friends of two Columbine High Schoolshooting victims do not have a First Amendment right to displaydecorative tiles that bear religious symbols as part of a schoolbeautification project.

The three-judge panel overturned the decision of U.S. DistrictCourt Judge Wiley Daniel in Fleming v. Jefferson County SchoolDistrict that ordered school officials to install eight religioustiles in the hallways of the school.

Daniel’s decision, which was put on hold until the three-judgepanel could hear the case, had also granted a special tile-paintingsession to parents Donald and Diedra Fleming, whose daughter Kellywas killed in the shooting, allowing them to create a tile stating"4/20/99 Jesus Wept." That order was also overturned.

Citing the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood SchoolDistrict v. Kuhlmeier, the panel ruled the tiles constituted"school-sponsored speech" that could be limited to promotethe school administrators’ "legitimate pedagogical concern"of creating a safe environment for their students.

"In weighing the competing interests of accommodatingthe victims’ parents and preventing the tile project from becominga memorial to the shooting, the District struck a reasonable balance,"Judge David Ebel wrote.

Librarian Elizabeth Keating and art teacher Barbara Hirokawainitiated the project, which called for students to create abstractart on four-by-four inch tiles that would be glazed, fired andmounted above the molding in the halls of the school.

The project was intended to "assist in community healingby allowing the community to ‘retake’ the school by participatingin its restoration."

To ensure that the tiles would add to the positive environmentthat administrators were trying to reestablish, the principalasked that there be no references to the attack on the tiles,including the date of the attack, the initials of students, ribbons,religious symbols, and nothing obscene or offensive.

Several students and parents, however, were dissatisfied withthe guidelines, and told the instructors supervising the paintingof the tiles that they intended to paint the images of their childrenand religious symbols on their tiles. The tiles were originallyinstalled, but were later removed by school officials citing afear of violating the law requiring the separation of church andstate.

The individuals, parents and friends of the victims of theApril 20, 1999, shooting at the school, sued with the help ofThe Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil-liberties organization.

The Rutherford Institute refused comment, but the organization’sattorneys plan to appeal, spokeswoman Nisha Mohammed said.

View the decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.Read our previous coverage.