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See You at the Pole suit affirms religious expression in school

DEMING, N.M. (BP)–Deming (N.M) Public Schools, under order of a U.S. District Court Judge, has a new policy for student expression and association.

It has been in force since January, but in one of those odd twists of law and parliamentary procedure, has not yet been adopted by the school district.

Because a federal judge’s signature is affixed to the policy, the result of a settlement of a suit filed by a Deming High School student, any question over student expression or association would be handled under the new policy.

But the Deming Public Schools’ Board of Education listed the policy for a first reading on its Feb. 19 agenda. It is scheduled for adoption at its March 14 meeting.

The suit arose from last September’s See You At the Pole gathering, sponsored locally by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Posters displayed by the Deming chapter, at behest of district legal staff, were censored. That prompted a suit by Regina M. Bishop, captain of the Deming FCA huddle and a member of First Baptist Church in Deming.

The suit alleged violations of First Amendment free speech and freedom of religion guarantees, of the Equal Access Act and of the 14th Amendment.

The posters the FCA wished to display contained the phrases “Taking a Stand for Christ,” “I Kneel Before the Father” and “We Bow Down.”

The posters eventually displayed on campus had the words “We Bow Down” partially covered by a strip of paper on which was written “Fellowship of Christian Athletes.”

Federal Judge Bruce D. Black signed the consent order and dismissal in January, while retaining and continuing jurisdiction to enforce terms of a stipulation reached between the district and Bishop, the latter represented by Alliance Defense Fund of Scottsdale, Ariz.

“Praise God,” Bishop said of the agreement. “It contains more than what the suit was about. I’m very pleased with the policy.”

“It better defines procedures under which students may operate on campus,” said Deming High principal Eric Cress.

It is in line, he and District Superintendent Hector Madrid said, with latest federal court rulings and case law.

“The single most important change,” plaintiff’s attorney Benjamin Bull of the Alliance Defense Fund said, “is that the school can no longer discriminate against student speech because it’s religious … on the grounds that it’s in religious forums.

“If the students are allowed to put up signs on campus — if any students are allowed to put up signs on campus — the school cannot censor speech on the grounds that is religious,” said Bull, of the ADF.

“For the first time, it recognized the constitutional right of students to engage in religious expression. The policy makes a correct constitutional distinction between official government speech on the one hand and student speech on the other.”

Previously, Bull said, that either didn’t exist in district policy or was so blurry, no one understood it.

“It took,” he said, “a federal judge to agree to retain jurisdiction to enforce jurisdiction, the club of a federal judge looking over their shoulders, to bring them around and I don’t think anybody would say that’s a little thing.”

Of the policy’s first reading, Bull said, it takes a back seat to a federal judge’s authority. “They cannot change a thing, not a comma,” he said of district’s handling of the policy.

Madrid and Cress said district staff, attorneys for both sides and board members were involved in developing the new policy.

Monetary damages were not an issue, Bull said.

“We don’t want to penalize the taxpayers of Deming,” he said, “if at an early stage in federal litigation we were able to get them [the district] to do what was right, which is what happened.”
Reprinted with permission of The Deming Headlight.

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  • Kevin Buey