Supreme Court: Yes to Faith, No to 'Bong Hits'

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - The Supreme Court handed down two long-awaited rulings involving religion and free speech on Monday.

The justices ruled against an atheist group that challenged President Bush's faith-based initiative on the grounds that taxpayer dollars should not be used to advance religion. And in another ruling, the justices said public schools may censor students like the one in Alaska, who held up a banner proclaiming the nonsensical phrase, "Bong hits 4 Jesus."

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said the Freedom From Religion Foundation did not have the standing to bring the "faith-based" case on behalf of taxpayers.

In 2001, President Bush signed an executive order creating the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to funnel tax dollars to religious groups that provide public welfare services.

Atheists argued that the government was giving preferential treatment to religious organizations. They argued that there should be no faith-based office in any branch of government because such offices amount to the "establishment of religion."

Christian groups, however, urged the Supreme Court to put an end to federal taxpayer lawsuits by church-state separationists.

The American Center for Law & Justice, in a friend of the court brief, argued that atheists enjoy special privileges by being able to file lawsuits simply because they are "taxpayers" -- and without having to show they were actually injured in some way by a law or government activity.

President Bush on Monday called the ruling a "substantial victory" for community and faith-based nonprofits across the country that have partnered with government at all levels to serve their neighbors.

"The Faith-Based and Community Initiative can remain focused on strengthening America's armies of compassion and expanding their good works," said a statement issued by the White House.

"From the first days of my Administration, we've championed the idea that those in need are better served when government draws on the strengths of every willing community partner-secular and faith-based, large and small," Bush said.

"My Administration has eliminated regulatory and policy barriers in the Federal agencies, delivered training and development to more than 50,000 social service entrepreneurs, and competitively awarded tens of thousands of federal grants to faith-based and community organizations for service to others at home and abroad."

'No' to 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus'

Also on Monday, the Justices overturned a lower-court ruling that found a public school in Juneau violated Joe Frederick's First Amendment rights by forcing him to remove the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" sign -- even though he was not standing on school property.

The school suspended Frederick for the prank

The Justices decided that schools have leeway to fight anything deemed to be a pro-drug message, since that is part of their mission.

"The message on Frederick's banner is cryptic," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. "But Principal Morse thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use, and that interpretation is plainly a reasonable one."

As Cybercast News Service previously reported, the case put Christian groups and the American Civil Liberties Union on the same side of the debate.

The ACLU defended Frederick's right to free speech. And Christian groups who disagreed with Frederick's message also objected to the idea of allowing school districts to "arbitrarily decide what's offensive and off-limits," as the American Center for Law & Justice put it.

"It's a dangerous idea that government may censor speech based on the vague concept of "school mission," said Jordan Lorence, senior vice president of the Alliance Defense Fund, on Monday.

"Say a school in San Francisco decided its mission was to support what they call 'complete equality for gays and lesbians, women's health and absolute religious diversity.' That may mean that said school could censor pro-marriage, pro-life and pro-Christian points of view," Lorence warned.

Likewise, the Family Research Council on Monday expressed concern about restrictions on the free speech of students, "because it is often religious or conservative speech that is restricted," the group said.

But the National School Boards Association, which represents 95,000 local school board members throughout the United States, applauded the court's decision that schools have the right to regulate student speech involving messages that could bring harm to students.

"The court clearly spoke to the health and well-being of our students, not their constitutional rights of free speech," said National School Boards Association General Counsel Francisco Negron. "This decision reaffirms the school's role in regulating messages that are detrimental to student welfare.

"As a result of this decision, school administrators don't have to be afraid of someone looking over their shoulder or second-guessing their decisions as they carry out the policies put in place by schools boards," said NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant.

See Earlier Stories:Christians and ACLU in Unlikely Partnership (March 20, 2007)
Atheists Have Had 'Free Pass' For Too Long, Law Group Says (March 1, 2007)

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