Lawsuit Filed Over Removal of Christian Posters in Classroom

A civil liberties and human rights group said on Friday that it filed a First Amendment lawsuit in a Virginia Federal court on behalf of a teacher whose Christian-themed posters were removed while he was out sick.

The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties and human rights group, alleges that school officials deprived teacher William Lee of his freedom of speech when York County School Division officials kept him from putting the materials back up, according to a press statement.

“Academic freedom is a core First Amendment value,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “The real question is whether William Lee has the same free speech rights as other teachers.”

The event occurred at the beginning of the 2004-2005 school year in October after the teacher had been absent for several days. William Lee is a full-time Spanish teacher and faculty sponsor for First Priority, an approved Christian students' extracurricular club at Tabb High School.

When he returned, various materials relating to Christian religious expression had been removed from classroom walls. He had posted several materials in his classroom as is the practice among instructors, said the Institute.

County Attorney James E. Barret sent a letter to the the Institute following the incdent, stating that the various posters were removed because the "overtly religious nature of the displays and their narrow focus on only a religious point of view, conveyed to the School Division an unmistakable endorsement of, and attempt to advance, Christianity," according to the Associated Press.

Lee's lawyer, Steve C. Taylor, said that his client was being targeted in "an apparently indiscriminate way, according to AP.

"When we're not provided with any guidelines, it permits a man to be singled out in violation of his constitutional rights," Taylor said. "I don't understand how these things were overtly religious."

He added that the posters came down after a "parent advocate" had complained on behalf of a student. Lee did not have an opportunity to discuss the matter with any parents or students, his lawyer said.

The posters taken down had Christian religious themes, while the items that remained included religious items that were not Christian. The Institute stated that Lee used the materials to teach students about the Spanish language, its culture and the religious traditions of nearly all Hispanic countries, in addition to illustrating the activities of First Priority.

Those removed included a poster publicizing the National Day of Prayer and depicting George Washington praying at Valley Forge, an article from a newspaper pertaining to the religious faith of President Bush with a picture showing Bush praying, and a news article about former Attorney General John Ashcroft and his prayer meetings with staff members.

Others that remained were pictures and articles relating to the Peruvian Inca sun god festival, a magazine article discussing the religious motives of pre-Inca civilizations, another article discussing the “priceless gift” of 14 “religious cows” as a religious expression of grief to the United States by the Masai people of Africa, a National Geographic article discussing the religious understanding of souls of Inca mummies in the afterlife, and posters with emblems representing the pantheon of Mayan creature gods.

The Institute said that only those materials relating to Christianity were removed while those relating to other religious beliefs or with a secular viewpoint were not taken away. The lawsuit is being made to ask the court to allow Lee to repost the materials removed.

The Institute says the suit was filed in defense of Lee's rights first and fourteenth amendment rights.