How are Christians to be a leaven in society? A group of Goddard High School students in Roswell, New Mexico wrestled with that problem for several, frustrating years.
Calling themselves Relentless, the group of about 25 Christians teenagers affiliated with the Roswell-based Church on the Move, explored various orchestrated acts of affirmation and kindness. One such effort involved leaving doughnuts, accompanied by short religious messages, for their teachers. The school responded, understandably, with a four-hour detention for the student who had violated rules about entering the teachers’ lounge.
Relentless members also, on different occasions, distributed sandwiches, hot chocolate, and candy canes to the faculty and fellow students. One student said the purpose was to “bless the staff for doing what they do every day; dealing with students and all the responsibilities of a teacher . . . [j]ust to give it to ’em and just to bless ’em.” They picked up trash and planted “affirmation” rocks decorated with “U are wonderful” and Psalm 139. In some cases, students may have obtained school permission – in some cases, not – but with the exception of the illicit entering of the teachers’ lounge, they were not stopped or reprimanded for these acts.
Next, Relentless decided to pass out two-inch plastic dolls representing a human fetus attached to contact information for a the Chaves Count pregnancy resource center, another ministry of Church on the Move. Some students responded favorably. A press release from Liberty Counsel (9-17-10) says, “one student had decided to take her own life because of her past decision to abort. When she received a model baby with the scripture, ‘you are fearfully and wonderfully made,’ she cried and prayed with the students and her life was saved, both physically and spiritually with the forgiveness of God.”
Other students were less receptive. School officials saw the dolls being tossed around and confiscated those that had not yet been handed out. Relentless tried to distribute the fetuses again, another day, but the school had decided it wasn’t going to happen.
Believing they had been treated unjustly, several Relentless’ members sued the Roswell Independent School District and its superintendent on the grounds that refusal to allow the Relentless students to distribute the fetus dolls violated their free speech rights and was discriminatory, as other students were permitted to distribute Valentine’s Day cards, chocolate, and stuffed animals that same day.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled unanimously (4-8-13, Taylor v. Roswell Independent School District) that while the content of students’ message has First Amendment protection and students must be permitted to express their views at school in some form, the District, believing distribution of the dolls could create a substantial disruption to school discipline, did not violate student free speech rights by stopping this particular activity.
Concerning the students’ complaint of religious discrimination, the Court argued that the decision to stop the distribution was not based on religion but on general student welfare and, therefore, the school acted within legal bounds.
This ruling is perhaps as good an example as any of why scripture cautions against taking one’s opponents to court – the law is a limited creature and can never (honestly) impute motive. Its arena is limited to actions.
However, it is reasonable for the public to ask why, in this era of hypersensitivity to diversity, the school authorities failed to use the “disruptive” reaction of some students to the fetal dolls as an opportunity to teach respect for diversity. At one point, Goddard’s principal said that the disruptive students had been “offended” by the dolls. Whatever distaste individual students and faculty may have felt for the Christian group’s evangelizing tactics, they represent – as the court made clear – a legally protected perspective. Those who were offended by that perspective need to be given tools for appropriate civil discourse. Isn’t that what the school would have done in other circumstances?
Consider a more politically acceptable scenario: suppose a Muslim student group had been handing out booklets of quotations from the Q’uran and non-Muslim students had rolled them into clubs to chuck at one another. Would school officials, perhaps still confiscating the materials for the sake of order, have taken the occasion to explain more socially acceptable ways express differences? Might they have attempted to create an environment where disparate groups could not merely coexist but, perhaps, also come to respect one another? One suspects so.
That they neglected to do these things does indeed suggest a discriminatory bias…and an alternative approach for pro-life, Christian students who want to get their message to fellow students. Since the court has agreed that they must be permitted to express their views at school in some form, invite the District to prepare a list of acceptable forms that students, coming from any perspective, may freely express themselves – whether or not other students “are offended.” At least there’d be a level playing field.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block also edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper.