Dr. David Shevin photograph

ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME

February, 2007

Christian rock band Pawn dropped their suit against the Rossford school district. The upshot is that these good Christians cost the taxpayers of the Toledo suburb over $150,000 in legal fees, and a payment to the conservative Rutheford Institute.

It’s a fascinating story of abuse of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, and it takes place in the home town of Madelyn Murray O’Hair, the atheist who won the 1963 Supreme Court ruling against sectarian prayer in the public schools. The new installment began on 2004, when members of Pawn, two of whom were enrolled in the school, appealed to the principal to set up an anti-drug assembly for the band to play. The principal, naturally a supporter of DARE and other anti-drug programs, agreed to have his students and their friends carry a public health message to the students.

Then the school board learned of the evangelical nature of the band, and requested that the assembly be cancelled. Once the cancellation was announced, the band decided that their speech rights were being violated. Instantly Fox News was making a national story of the case. Band member Kyle Kleeberger told the press, “I’m hoping that because of what happened to us, the more schools and people will be aware of what their rights are instead of living in fear and getting sued. I hope we get more publicity to take Jesus Christ to more levels and follow whatever his plan is.” Kyle’s father David was in a minority as a member of the school board, and struck a publicly opposition position. The father also managed the band.

Kyle’s confidence was short-lived. Despite the rallying of the religious right and the Rutheford Institute to the band’s cause, U. S. District Judge Jack Zouhary dismissed the band’s suit, saying that the band’s performance “could have been seen as endorsing a particular religion”. Well, duh.

One would expect that the dismissal of the case would have been the end of the story. The constitution won, the band lost. But this was not the end of the tale. The band appealed to the 6th U.S. District Court of Appeals. Superintendent Luci Gernot and the board saw legal bills mount. At the same time, a new election came around, and David Kleeberger took over as chair of the Rossford school board. While some members of the school board dissented, and while members of the community were up in arms, the board publicly considered settling the case in the band’s favor. Kleeberger made no secret of his agenda for the schools, announcing in a board meeting, “What I’m trying to do is open religious thought to schools.”

The wrangling became public and contentious. While a majority of the board supported the superintendent in their initial victory, the board swayed under Kleeberger’s leadership. In fact, two of the board members wanted the case to go to the Court of Appeals, so that Judge Zouhary’s decision could be upheld. The best read that I have is that the board became worn down by time and money. The Toledo Blade reported in December that a split school board agreed to settle the case, picking up both the city’s court costs and the costs of the band’s legal fees, to be paid to the Rutherford Institute.

Over the superintendent and some board member’s objections, the settlement was completed with the agreement that the band would drop its claims and would not play the initially proposed assemble. In exchange, the board “promised to amend its policies not to discriminate on the basis of religion against speakers of performers at school-sponsored events.” The Blade editorialized, “Taxpayers should be relieved it’s over but outraged by its conclusion.”

Of course, the paper is absolutely right. This battle to dismantle the establishment clause of the First Amendment not only compromised the Constitution, but did so by endlessly pickpocketing the citizens of the community. Oh, Brave New World!

By David Shevin

(C)opyright 2007 David Shevin All Rights Reserved

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