Jesus is allowed at Lewisville Independent School District.
For a while at the beginning of this school year, it didn’t seem that way. The Texas high school censored the word “Jesus” out of the business logo of a student club sponsor.
“The government often thinks it can, or should, censor speech just because it’s religious. But that’s not true,” said Jeremy Dys, First Liberty Senior Counsel. Some officials at Lewisville Independent School District (ISD) were apparently misinformed.
But Lewisville ISD quickly and commendably reversed course when informed by First Liberty that the school was violating the law. First Liberty represented the club sponsor whose logo was censored.
“We congratulate the school for immediately and graciously restoring the lawful free exercise of our client’s religion,” said Dys.
This case provides an instructive lesson of how easily religious freedom can be violated, and how easily it can be restored when the law is acknowledged.
SCHOOL OFFICIALS CENSOR ‘JESUS’ AND REDESIGN COMPANY’S LOGO
Early in the 2016 school year, Wess Jones, owner of a nearby boat repair business called 1st Choice Marine, signed up to sponsor the school’s bass fishing club where his daughter is a member. For a sponsorship fee, Jones’s company logo would be featured on the club’s website and jerseys.
Jones’s business reflects his Christian faith — 1st Choice Marine’s slogan is “It’s Not About Us, It’s All About Jesus.” This slogan is prominent in the company’s logo.
But when Jones submitted his logo to the school in early September, officials responded saying they couldn’t use it because of the slogan. Having the words “It’s not about us, it’s all about Jesus” displayed on jerseys, banners and the website could put the school “in real hot water,” one official told Jones in an email.
Jones was stunned that the school would refuse to use the logo simply because it referenced Jesus. He reminded the school official that his company was not affiliated with the school, making the logo his private speech. However, the school officials declined to allow the logo as long as it contained the religious reference.
Not only did the school refuse to display Jones’ original logo, they found a totally different logo for 1st Choice Marine—without Jones’s consent or approval—and placed it on the bass fishing club’s website. The new logo removed the slogan, altered the business’ name, eliminated the company’s contact information, and removed all previous branding.
SCHOOL’S CORRECTIVE ACTIONS SET “A GREAT EXAMPLE”
“The law requires the government to be neutral toward the religious speech of others,” Dys said.
First Liberty issued a letter on October 19, asking the school to immediately remove the “illegitimate logo” from the club’s website and replace it with 1st Choice Marine’s actual logo. First Liberty also asked that the school provide written assurances that the correct logo will be displayed on jerseys and banners during the next season.
Within six hours, the school issued a statement that said, “…the students in the club are free to make decisions regarding who may pay to sponsor their club and which logos are placed on their jerseys, website, and/or other areas under their control. Flower Mound HS administration therefore cannot require prior approval for such sponsorships or logos. The District will not further interfere in which logos or sponsorships the FMHS Bass Club chooses to accept.”
“We are grateful to Lewisville Independent School District for taking swift action to correct this situation,” Dys said. “They are a great example to school districts everywhere of how to work with parents and children to ensure that First Amendment freedoms are protected in school.”
“I am very pleased that the school district decided to do the right thing,” Wess Jones said.
PROTECTING PRIVATE RELIGIOUS SPEECH IN SCHOOL
Lewisville Independent School District is indeed a positive example, but there have been others.
In 2014, First Liberty defended two student-led religious clubs. Two New York high schools told students John Raney and Liz Loverde that their clubs were not allowed because of their religious nature. In both instances, First Liberty issued demand letters to the schools citing the Equal Protection Act of 1984, which states that federally funded schools must provide equal access to extracurricular clubs. In both cases, the schools conceded and Raney and Loverde were able to have their clubs.
On the other hand, First Liberty is still fighting an ongoing legal battle on behalf of the Kountze cheerleaders, a group of students who were told in 2012 that they could not write Bible verses on cheer banners displayed at football games, even though they’d paid for and created the banners individually. In 2016, the Texas Supreme Court sent this case back to a lower court. First Liberty contends that the cheerleaders’ signs were their own private speech and not subject to school censorship.
And First Liberty is also representing Joe Kennedy, a high school football coach who was fired for praying at the 50-yard-line after games. In addition to multiple court cases and laws, First Liberty cited the United States Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, which states, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
In their letter to Lewisville Independent School District and Flower Mound High School, First Liberty attorneys relied yet again on the strong legal precedent that exists for free, private religious expression in public schools, citing cases which say that schools must protect the religious freedom and free speech of individuals.
“If they’ll allow a non-religious logo, they must allow a religious logo,” Dys said of Lewisville ISD. Due to a citizen willing to stand for his religious rights, swift action by attorneys, and fair-minded school officials, such rights are respected at Lewisville Independent School District.
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