Friday, February 18, 2005

Saw This Coming

The Religious Reich moves a lot of air and raises a lot of money decrying “activist judges” who use the courts to interpret the laws about the separation of church and state. But as soon as they feel they’re the ones whose rights are being violated, where do they go? You guessed it.

Rossford [Ohio] Superintendent Luci Gernot said she prohibited the Christian rock band Pawn from playing during a school anti-drug assembly Dec. 21 because of concerns about potentially being sued for promoting religion in a public school.

Yesterday, the district was sued – by the band.

The lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Toledo claims the Rossford Exempted Village School District and Ms. Gernot violated the band’s constitutional free speech rights under the First Amendment.

The suit also contends that Pawn – whose song lyrics make various references to God – was discriminated against for religious purposes even though they planned to keep on-stage talk between songs nonreligious and focused on the assembly’s anti-drug theme. Student attendance at the assembly, held during school hours, was optional.

The band is asking U.S. District Judge David A. Katz to rule that Pawn should have been allowed to play at the assembly, said Tom Condit, an affiliate attorney for The Rutherford Institute – a nonprofit religious and human rights organization that is representing the band in the lawsuit.

“We’re asking for the court to declare that a band like Pawn is entitled to perform a secular performance in a public school,” Mr. Condit said. “Just because they’re Christian does not disqualify them from participating in a public forum.”

John Whitehead, president and founder of The Rutherford Institute and a lawyer who has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, said the lawsuit was filed because it involves an important constitutional issue.

“There is this illusion around the country that anything having to do with religion is automatically unconstitutional, it shouldn’t be in the schools, and it’s treated as if it were something dirty,” he said. “I think it’s courageous for groups like Pawn to stand up and say, ‘This is illegal.'”


The superintendent rejected the request to allow Pawn to perform after receiving an inquiry from a concerned parent and the district’s law firm, Whalen & Compton of Akron, advised against the performance. The decision provoked an outcry from supporters of the band and quickly drew national attention from those for and against the right to religious presence in public schools.

After discussing the matter with its attorneys, the school board backed Ms. Gernot’s decision and offered to allow the band to play after school hours at an event sponsored by local businesses.

Because the school board did not overrule the decision, the Rev. Mark Montgomery, who is the father of two band members, called the Texas-based Rutherford Institute to begin negotiations with school officials.

But Rossford school board President Joseph Minarcin, Jr., said the school board has already resolved to support Ms. Gernot’s decision.

“We’re still standing behind her just as we stated earlier,” he said. “We’re not there to negotiate. This is what our decision is.”

When negotiations failed, the band and The Rutherford Institute moved toward litigation. Travis Montgomery, a 1995 Rossford High graduate, said yesterday that he wished the issue could have been resolved another way.

“We have to stand up for our rights,” he said, “because otherwise they may not be there.”

I would like them to explain to me with a straight face how it’s perfectly all right for a group of students to sue to get a religious message into a school program, but it’s not all right for another group of students to sue to keep one out.