School Must Defend 10 Commandments Statue

     (CN) — An atheist mother can sue a Pittsburgh school district for displaying the Ten Commandments on a monument at her daughter’s would-be high school, the Third Circuit ruled.
     The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, parents and students sued Pittsburgh’s New Kensington-Arnold School District in Federal Court in 2012, alleging a Ten Commandments monument at Valley High School violates the Establishment Clause.
     Shortly after the complaint was filed, a federal judge in Pittsburgh allowed the plaintiffs to submit as evidence various threats they received on Facebook upon filing suit.
     One of the parents, Marie Schaub, claims the monument — including the text “The Ten Commandments” and “Lord” — is visible from the curb near the school gym’s entrance.
     But the mother says she wishes to raise her daughter, referred to in court papers as Doe 1, without religion and does not want the monument to influence her.
     While Schaub did not testify that she ever read the full text of the monument, she said she views it as “commanding” students and visitors at the high school to worship “thy God.”
     Though her daughter was going to attend Valley High in 2014, her mother ultimately sent her to a different school further from home, leaving her middle school friends behind, Schaub says.
     Yet Doe 1, who identifies as nonreligious, claims she never read the monument, and when she first saw it at age 6, she was too young to understand or pay attention to it.
     She allegedly noticed the monument later on because her mom was “worried about it.”
     Upon viewing a photo of the monument, Doe 1 testified that she does not “feel like [she] ha[s] to believe in God, but . . . [that] since it’s there in front of a school that they kind of want you to be that way,” court records show.
     The trial court nonetheless awarded the school district summary judgment, finding the plaintiffs lacked standing.
     They appealed, and the Third Circuit partially reversed the lower court’s ruling Tuesday, finding that Schaub has standing to seek both nominal damages and injunctive relief.
     “Whether Schaub read the monument each time she saw it, or ever fully read its text, is immaterial since it is the monument’s overall representation of the Ten Commandments to which Schaub objects, as she sees it as conveying a religious message,” Judge Patty Shwartz wrote for the three-judge panel.
     Schaub’s claims that the monument “signals that [she is] an outsider because [she] do[es] not follow the particular religion or god that the monument endorses,” and that her “stomach turned” when she saw it, “are sufficient to demonstrate that her contact with the monument was unwelcome,” the judge added. “Thus, Schaub has standing to pursue a nominal damages claim.”
     The mother may seek an injunction even though she did not send her daughter to Valley High, the ruling states.
     “While there may be cases in which an injunction would be ineffective because the injurious conduct has ceased, here Schaub represents that she intends to enroll Doe 1 at the high school if the monument is removed and that Doe 1 wishes to take courses at the adjoining career center, demonstrating that an injunction, if granted, could provide relief,” Shwartz wrote.
     But the daughter does lack standing for damages for past encounters with the monument, according to the precedential ruling.
     “It is not clear from the record that Doe 1 read or understood the monument until after the suit was filed,” Shwartz wrote. “As to Doe 1’s comment that she later viewed the monument as conveying that the school wanted students to subscribe to religious beliefs, the record does not show that she had that view at the time the complaint was filed.”
     The Third Circuit remanded to the lower court to decide whether Schaub was a member of Freedom from Religion when she filed suit, which would give it organizational standing.
     Freedom from Religion Co-President Annie Gaylor said the plaintiffs are “delighted that reason — and the Constitution — have prevailed, and look forward to winning this case at the district level.”
     “If anybody has suffered injury by the presence of a Ten Commandments monolith at this community high school, it is Marie Schaub and her daughter, whose lives and education have been disrupted just for speaking up for the First Amendment,” Gaylor added.
     D.C.-based amicus curiae Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s legal director, Richard Katskee, applauded the court for recognizing “that parents have the right to guide their children’s religious upbringing; the public schools don’t.”
     “The public schools are supposed to be open equally to all, regardless of faith or belief,” Katskee added. “No child should have to leave her neighborhood and her friends, and travel all the way across town twice a day, just to avoid having the public schools press a particular religious view on her. That’s a serious violation of the rights of the child and her parents.”
     Schaub’s attorney, Marcus Schneider with Steele Schneider in Pittsburgh, did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
     Neither did the school district’s attorneys, Christine Lane and Anthony Sanchez with Sanchez Legal Group in Pittsburgh, nor attorneys with Mayer Brown in Chicago and D.C. for the other amici curiae.
     They include the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network and the Sikh Coalition, the last of which said it will provide comment Wednesday.

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