ILLINOIS — Instead of reciting the usual mix of school announcements, weather and sports news himself, student broadcaster James Lord watched someone else read the news in January after his high school administration punished him for saying ”God bless” on the air.
The Dupo High School senior’s First Amendment rights to religious expression and freedom of the press had collided with the school’s concerns over the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits schools from promoting religion.
The school suspended Lord for almost one month from the ”Tiger’s Eye News,” a student-run television show, for ending the Dec. 17 broadcast by saying, ”Have a safe and happy holiday, and God bless.”
School administrators had warned Lord not to regularly say ”God bless” on the school’s extracurricular closed-circuit television show. Lord said he did not interpret the school’s warning to mean he could never say ”God bless.” But when he did, administrators suspended him from his broadcasting duties until Feb. 1 because they did not want students watching the show to believe the school was promoting the religious message.
Initially, Lord did not challenge his suspension, but after researching his rights, he contacted the American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm specializing in constitutional law and religious liberties.
”School administrators have a difficult time navigating religion in the schools. But this is a perfect example of [an] out-of-whack decision on one end of the spectrum,” said Frank Manion, the center’s senior counsel.
When Manion heard about Lord’s suspension, he said he ”didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
On the advice of center, Lord appealed his suspension at a Jan. 27 school board meeting. The board unanimously reinstated him. Lord had served all but three days of his suspension.
Dupo School District Superintendent Michael Koebel said Lord was suspended because of concerns over the establishment clause, which he said often conflicts with students’ free-speech rights.
”Court cases have stated that school districts have to remain neutral in their viewpoints about religion,” he said. ”You can’t look as if you are supporting a specific religion. It certainly looks as if the school is putting a stamp on something if you’re using our materials [such as television equipment], so therefore your First Amendment rights [to free expression] as a student are curtailed. ”
Koebel noted, however, that students are free to express their opinions off campus.
The school board did not say whether Lord can say ”God bless” in the future. Since resuming his duties on the television show, Lord said he has refrained from saying ”God bless” because he does not want to ”pour salt on an open wound.”
Manion said schools are overly sensitive to religious expression and suggests officials realize they can allow students to express religious views without violating the Constitution.
”[Schools should] stop being establishment-clause police, snooping around and pouncing on anyone who has a religious sentiment,” Manion said.