On The Front Lines


Rutherford Institute Attorneys Ask Appeals Court to Reconsider Decision to Allow Censorship of Religious Memorial Tiles for Slain Columbine Students


Nisha N. MohammedPh: (434) 978-3888, ext. 604; Pager: 800-946-4646, Pin #: 1478257Email: Nisha N. Mohammed
July 15, 2002

DENVER, Co.--Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have asked a federal appeals court to reconsider its June 27 decision to overturn a trial judge's ruling in favor of the free speech rights of three Columbine families to place decorative tiles containing religious content in the corridors of Columbine High School as memorials for their children slain in the 1999 shootings. U.S. District Court Judge Wiley Daniel had ruled in October 2001 that by inviting community members to "help the healing process and express themselves" by creating the tiles, school officials created a limited public forum in which religious expression must be allowed. Judge Daniel stated that Columbine school officials violated the First Amendment when they refused to install the painted tiles and removed those that had already been placed. Daniel ordered school officials to install the families' eight religious tiles and allow a special tile-painting session for Donald and Diedra Fleming to create a tile stating "4/20/99 Jesus Wept," which they had been prevented from painting. In reversing Judge Daniel's decision, the three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the tile project was "school sponsored" and that therefore Columbine officials had the authority to censor the tiles they found "objectionable"--including those that had religious content.

On April 20, 1999, two students at Columbine High School (CHS) shot and killed 12 students and one teacher, injuring numerous others, before turning their guns on themselves. After the tragedy, it was proposed that tile-painting sessions be held at CHS and that students and others connected to the tragedy be allowed to participate.
The tile project, started several years earlier by a CHS art teacher, gave students a forum in which they could express themselves by painting ceramic tiles and affixing them above lockers in the hallways. However, school officials informed family members and friends associated with the April 20 shootings that tiles with religious symbols or "inappropriate" content could not be displayed. On behalf of the families, Brian Rohrbough objected. His son Daniel had been a devout Christian. Other families, upset that memorials to their children would be censored, also voiced their objections.
School officials then relented and allowed them to include religious messages. But after the tiles were affixed to the walls, another screening process took place. Citing a fear of violating what they thought to be the separation of church and state, school officials removed approximately 50 tiles. Among the tiles torn down was one painted by Nicole Petrone, Daniel Rohrbough's stepsister. It showed a red heart with a red rose, a smaller yellow cross and her brother's name. In their brief urging the court of appeals to reconsider its decision, Institute attorneys argue that the court's decision ignores numerous Supreme Court cases upholding the right of religious students to express their faith on campus free from school control. If the court's decision is allowed to stand, Institute attorneys argue, school officials will have virtually unlimited power to censor speech at graduation ceremonies, assemblies, and other school-related functions, simply because the speech may be "offensive" to some hearers.

"The appeals court has turned a resounding victory for free speech in schools into a crushing defeat that threatens the very existence of the right to speak at all in schools," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "The court's decision must be corrected, either by the court itself or the Supreme Court, or America's public schools may become what the Supreme Court has warned against--'enclaves of totalitarianism' that do not tolerate open debate and dissent."

The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.

Press Contact

Nisha Whitehead
(434) 978-3888 ext. 604
nisha@rutherford.org