The parents and relatives of the students who were slain in the
Columbine shooting have now suffered yet another crushing blow. In
addition to having to deal with the cruel reality of never seeing these
young people again, they have also been denied the right to
reverentially honor their loved ones.
During the first week of August, families of the Columbine
victims were invited to participate in painting the tiles that line the
hallways of Columbine High School. These tiles were to contain messages
from the families of the slain students and were intended to serve as a
memorial to the deceased.
However, when the parties were gathered and the paintbrushes distributed, the families were told by school officials that the tiles could not contain any names or dates. Religious messages, as well, were banned.
Brian Rohrbough, father of one of the slain students, objected to this prohibition of religion because his son Daniel was a devout Christian. To script a message on the school campus where his son was gunned down, without even mentioning Daniel or his faith, Mr. Rohrbough explained, was not possible. He was not alone in this belief. Other families were similarly upset that they could not express their faith and sentiments uncensored.
School officials then reversed their position and allowed religious messages to be painted on the tiles. Although only about half of the tiles completed by the families contained religious messages, school officials, fearing a violation of separation of church and state, reverted to their initial objections. They had all the tiles containing religious references torn down, leaving blank spaces where the slain children had been honored. Now the halls of Columbine High are void of
any reference to the religious faith shared by the students who died in
those hallways last spring.
If this tribute is truly in honor of the students who were murdered, then the messages should reflect the beliefs of those it honors. For example,
"Courage and religious conviction" could be painted on a tile in honor of Cassie Bernall who, like Daniel Rohrbough, was a Christian student gunned down at Columbine.
Cassie was in the library on April 12 when the shooters entered. Holding a gun in his hand, one asked her, "Do you believe in God?" Cassie bravely replied, "Yes, I do believe in God." The gunman then pulled the trigger.
If a religious belief cost Cassie her life, it would be a travesty to honor her with a hallway tile that had no mention of her faith. Undoubtedly, other terrified children were praying for their own survival and the survival of their friends during those torturous hours. To ignore the power of the faith held by those students is, in essence, to ignore them.
Denying the families and relatives of the deceased Columbine students any chance to express their faith in remembrance of their lost loved ones denies them their right to religious expression and freedom of speech. The surviving family members have a right to convey their thoughts and beliefs, and that right to expression is guaranteed. Contrary to school officials, this constitutional right to expression does not infringe on the right of Columbine students to be
free from state-sponsored religion.
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, schools need to maintain neutrality toward religion, not negate it. When Thomas Jefferson first penned the term "wall of separation," he could not have envisioned the insurmountable wall between church and state that currently exists. And because of decisions such as the one made at Columbine, the Constitution is now thought to guarantee freedom from religion, rather than freedom for religion.
Constitutionally and morally, religion should not be excluded from the memorial tiles at Columbine High, especially since religion could not be separated from the students those tiles were meant to honor.
If school officials are allowed to persecute families by prohibiting their
religious messages, then nothing was learned from the massacre at Columbine except that perhaps the words freedom, justice and mercy mean nothing at school.