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Regulating rosaries will end in lawsuit

Officials with a Colorado Springs, Colo., middle school are standing firm on an odd new policy. And they are placing taxpayers in needless danger of expensive litigation the district will almost certainly lose.

It’s all because school administrators don’t want students wearing rosaries outside of their shirts.

It’s a discriminatory policy that’s an affront to freedom of expression and religion. If not rescinded soon, a lawsuit should be welcomed as a necessary defense of fundamental freedom.

School officials flip-flop, telling the media their policy results from gang concerns one moment and stating in writing it’s because the rosary might offend. Neither rationale works. A person’s right to wear a rosary doesn’t end the moment a gang member puts one on, and the district most certainly has no right to forbid particular forms of religious expressions because someone might find them offensive.

“They’re in trouble on this,” said David Kopel, a Denver University adjunct professor of advanced constitutional law. “If they are doing this because wearing the rosary may offend some Catholics, as they say in a written statement, they are going to get sued and they are going to lose.”

UCLA constitutional law professor Eugene Volokh, a former law clerk for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, concurs. Eugene White, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington,

promises a lawsuit the moment a student who desires to wear the rosary at Mann Middle School comes forward.

White prevailed in a nearly identical case in September, after an upstate New York school banned wearing rosaries because of gang concerns. A federal court ordered the school to allow the plaintiff to wear his rosary openly.

School officials announced in an Oct. 4 written statement to parents that wearing rosaries in a visible manner might offend Catholic students who don’t believe the rosary should be worn. After expressions of predictable and warranted outrage from civil rights advocates on the left and the right, a school district official said the policy results from concerns that gang members wear them in visible fashion.

The school may have some grounds regarding gang concerns, but only if administrators prove a substantial risk of disruption at their school tied directly to rosaries. That would not be easy. Volokh said district officials would need to provide evidence of past violent events at Mann that resulted directly from rosaries.

“I don’t have information as to whether there has been a problem with violence in the past,” said school spokeswoman Elaine Naleski.

Even if school officials could prove violent episodes, Volokh said the school’s case would be harmed by the written statement about Catholic sensibilities. Unless a symbol is lewd, vulgar, indecent or plainly offensive — in violation of community standards — the school “may not restrict symbolic material on the grounds that it may offend other students,” Volokh said.

Naleski has defended the policy by reiterating her belief that wearing the rosary violates Catholic teaching.

“If brought up in the Catholic faith, you are taught that you are not to wear the rosary outside of your shirt,” Naleski said.

Why would public school officials concern themselves with that?

“Again, our concern is really with gang fights,” Naleski said.

It’s not believable. Furthermore, it’s not a violation of Catholic teaching to wear the rosary in a visible manner. Catholic authorities have made this clear.

Even if it were an affront to Catholicism, church teachings may have no bearing on a public school’s dress code decisions because government may neither respect nor renounce religious doctrine. That’s why we have private schools.