A federal judge has ruled that Loudoun County school officials discriminated against some families by removing bricks engraved with crosses from a walkway in front of Potomac Falls High School.
The families bought the bricks as part of a fundraiser for the school's parent group. For $50, parents could buy a brick engraved with their child's name and class year and have it installed as part of a "walk of fame" surrounding the Sterling school's flagpole.
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For an additional $5, they could add a symbol to the brick. An order form gave parents choices of 24 symbols, mostly for extracurricular activities such as swimming and football. The only religious symbol offered was a cross.
In February 2003, Loudoun officials removed six bricks inscribed with crosses after receiving a complaint about the religious icon. Three families whose bricks were torn out -- along with a fourth who still wished to buy a cross-engraved brick -- sued, arguing that their free-speech rights had been violated.
In a ruling this month, U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris agreed, saying that the school system opened a limited forum for public expression by inviting parents to add symbols to the bricks and then engaged in "impermissible viewpoint discrimination" by removing only those with crosses.
"Those students who believed that their high school career was marked by their faith were not permitted to celebrate their accomplishments, while the school allowed those who engaged in any number of athletic endeavors to inscribe their achievements on the 'walk of fame,' " Cacheris wrote.
The case has highlighted the difficulty of dealing with religious displays on public property. Loudoun officials have said they felt that they had to remove the bricks or risk a lawsuit accusing them of endorsing Christianity. Cacheris ruled that the fear was unfounded, assuming parents were allowed to inscribe other religious symbols as well.
Roger Marcum, a plaintiff in the suit, said he was ecstatic with the ruling and hoped it would set a precedent. "What's fair in this country is what's fair for the majority," said Marcum, who had bought a brick for his daughter Nicole. "It seems like every time one or two people complain, the bottom-line justice is for the minority, not the majority."
His attorney, John W. Whitehead, called the decision a "good free-speech victory." Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based civil liberties group, said the group is engaged in several similar lawsuits and expects the bricks case to be used in rulings elsewhere.
School officials now will have to decide whether to appeal the ruling or replace the bricks. The judge left open a third option: They could "close" the public forum by removing all the bricks in the walkway.
School Board Chairman John A. Andrews II said the school system's attorney is reviewing the decision and will discuss his findings with the board at its meeting Tuesday.
Andrews has said he supported returning the cross-engraved bricks to the sidewalk and hoped the School Board would vote to do so at a meeting in March 2003. The lawsuit was filed just days before the meeting, however, and he said then he felt the board must cancel the vote and proceed with its defense.
"My view hasn't changed from what it was over a year ago, but I do have to get briefed by the attorney to understand exactly what the ruling is," he said.