LITTLETON, Colo.—Because her son was killed in the Columbine High School massacre of 1999, Sue Petrone was invited to paint a tile for inclusion in a massive display of thousands of tiles above student lockers. What happened next appalled her.

Being Catholic, Petrone painted a 4-inch by 4-inch tile with a big red heart overlaid by a tiny cross. The name “Danny Rohrbough”—her deceased son—was painted at the bottom of the tile.

“It never made it on the wall,” Petrone said. “My stepdaughter's tile featured a stem rose, with a tiny yellow cross in the background that you could barely see. School officials ripped it down.”

In fact, Columbine High School officials have stripped 90 tiles off the wall that were deemed to contain religious symbolism, and dozens of other tiles painted by friends and relatives of murdered students were never included in the memorial because school officials are determined to keep religious messages out of the school.

Petrone and Danny Rohrbough's father, Brian Rohrbough, are suing the school district, in a case that's becoming more bizarre as it winds its way up the federal court system.

“The school invited us in to participate in painting tiles, as part of the healing process,” Petrone said. “And when we painted what we wanted to express, they didn't like it. They don't like my memory—of my own murdered son—so they've censored me.”

Danny's father, Brian Rohrbough, said he believes school district officials are angry at the parents of children who died in the massacre, possibly because the parents are constant reminders of a horrible event.

His tile, featuring 13 tiny crosses—one for each innocent victim—was censored and never made it on the wall.

Said Rohrbough, “It's very hurtful to be invited in to paint these tiles, and then have them say No. It's like the school thinks we haven't had enough pain yet. They've spent a half million dollars fighting us on this to date, and there are indications that if it goes all the way to the Supreme Court, and we prevail, then they'll just rip down all the tiles in the school.”

The latest round in the fight was won by the parents, when U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel ruled that district officials had violated the First Amendment protection of free speech by censoring the tiles. Judge Daniel ordered school officials to replace any tiles they had taken from the wall by the end of the day Sunday, Nov. 4.

On the morning of Nov. 5, however, the tiles were still missing. Meanwhile, school-district officials and their lawyers were racing to convince the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to put Judge Daniel's ruling on hold so the district could appeal. On Nov. 6, two days beyond Daniel's deadline for the tiles to be replaced, the court of appeals granted the school district a stay.

Rohrbough says that, to the best of his knowledge, the zeal to keep religious messages off the wall emanates from Jon DeStefano, a member of the Jefferson County School Board. DeStefano was president of the board when the massacre took place. And DeStefano confirms that he'll defend the school district's right and need to censor the tiles all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

DeStefano's an unlikely school official to be leading the crusade against religious tiles, because he's a Christian who cites Bible verses and invokes the name of Jesus routinely.

“I'm a conservative, traditional Catholic,” DeStefano said. “I believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior, no question about it. I grew up Catholic. I attended Fenwick High School, a Dominican school in Chicago, and I went to college at Regis University, a Jesuit school in Denver. I'm a devout, practicing Catholic. Yet I'm a devout, practicing Catholic who thinks those tiles do not belong in that school.”

Columbine, said DeStefano, is one of 145 schools in the Jefferson County School District. Many of the schools, he said, have tile displays similar to Columbine's. Even the Columbine tile display was up and running for three years before the 1999 massacre.

“To have these displays of art, in a large number of schools serving diverse populations, we have had to enact very strict guidelines about content,” DeStefano said. “These displays are about decorating the schools. They aren't about free expression. If they were about free expression, and we weren't allowed to censor them, then it would get absurd.”

DeStefano said the district learned the importance of censoring student expressions several years ago, when a group of African-American students wanted to wear a tribal symbol on their graduation gowns. District officials said No, and their right to do so was upheld by the courts.

“If we allowed the Kenta Cloth in that situation, it would have opened the door to all kinds of free expression by students,” DeStefano said. “If we allowed tribal symbolism, then it would be that much harder to say No to street gang symbols or swastikas.”

DeStefano added that he objects to any tiles that directly memorialize the massacre victims. He said the district has properly memorialized the students with a new atrium and library—“the best high school library in the country.”

“Thousands of students will be going to this school for years and years into the future,” DeStefano said. “The kids deserve an environment that's just a normal school, not a living memorial to April 20, 1999.”

John Whitehead, lead attorney with the Rutherford Institute, whose organization represents the parents in their suit against the school district, agreed the district has good reason to censor some forms of expression. The district can censor violent expression, or expression deemed obscene by the common sense of a principal.

But what the district cannot do lawfully, said Whitehead, is censor expressions of students or parents merely because their religious nature. The Constitution and the courts, Whitehead explained, have specifically prohibited the censoring of religious expression.

The policy by Jefferson County schools, he added, is simply illegal.

Whitehead argued a landmark Supreme Court case last summer that resulted in a ruling favorable to religious expression on public school campuses. In Good News Club vs. Milford Central School, the court held that a Christian youth club for grades Kindergarten through grade 8 must be permitted to meet in a public school building in Milford, N.Y., because the club's meetings constitute “moral instruction” similar to instruction provided by other youth organizations including Boy Scouts and the 4-H club.

Justices in the Good News case said that a meeting space is merely a forum for information, and does not constitute an endorsement of the religious views expressed in the forum. Like the meeting space, argued Whitehead, Columbine's wall of tiles is nothing other than a “forum” that has been offered up for students and invited members of the community to express themselves.

Legal Battleground

Throughout U.S. history, the federal courts have walked a tightrope on issues of religion in public institutions. The courts want to forbid any form of government—be it city hall or a school district—from creating the impression that it favors one religion over another, thus establishing state-sponsored religion. Establishment of religion, the courts have determined, is prohibited by the First Amendment.

But the First Amendment also forbids the suppression of free speech or practices of religion. Thus, the tightrope walk.

“The courts have determined that the difference between the ‘establishment’ of religion, and the mere free expression of religion, is coercion,” Whitehead explained. “If you force kids in a school to participate in a prayer, for example, that's a clear case of coercion. But allowing a cross on a tile on a wall, with thousands of other tiles—most of which are of a secular nature—does not coerce anyone to believe or to pray.”

School district officials disagree, said Marilyn Saltzman, a spokes-woman for the Jefferson County School District. Although the district has removed 90 tiles, Saltzman said that the tiles are “permanently affixed” to the wall and therefore could be easily perceived as official expressions of the school bureaucracy.

“It is the school district's official view that things mounted permanently on a wall are an endorsement by the school district,” Saltzman said. “As such, we are very careful about what goes on the walls.”

‘Yin Yang’ Not Banned

They aren't “careful,” countered Brian Rohrbough, they're “bigoted.”

“They're blatantly discriminatory against my faith,” said Rohrbough, a nondenominational Christian. “One tile on the wall has the yin yang [an Eastern religious symbol], but a cross is unacceptable. And nobody at the district can explain to me why that's okay, and crosses or Bible verses are not.”

DeStefano said he was unaware of a yin yang tile, and he doesn't know whether it would be in violation of district policy. He said the administration of each school simply makes its own call on each questionable tile, and said the process can never be anything but subjective.

“There probably are some tiles at Columbine that shouldn't be on that wall,” DeStefano said. “One reason for that is the fact that the moment this lawsuit was filed, the tile display was frozen. We were forbidden at that moment from taking down anything else.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.