COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Wear a Buddha. Wear the Star of David. Wear an atheist evolve fish, even if religious students take offense. Just don’t wear a rosary while attending Mann Middle School.
Administrators of the school, in a city of 410,000 that’s often referred to as the “Evangelical Vatican,” have banned wearing the rosary unless it’s tucked under a shirt. While imposing the policy, administrators have clarified that students may wear any other religious items in a visible manner. They have created confusion about their rationale, telling the media it relates to gang activity and telling parents that it has to do with sensitivity to Catholics who may find wearing of rosary beads offensive. First Amendment lawyers say the case is bizarre, placing the school in danger of losing a potential lawsuit.
The school in Colorado Springs is the second in two months to make news in a high-profile rosary conflict, as federal judges ruled in September against a rosary ban in upstate New York. Lawyers say they expect more schools to grapple with rosary conflicts as gangs increasingly co-opt the beads as a symbol of unity.
The Colorado Springs ban, imposed in October, has stirred a national debate about the right of a public school to forbid one form of religious expression while allowing all others. The American Center for Law and Justice, an organization that protects religious expression, threatened a lawsuit, and the American Civil Liberties Union told the school it is in violation of the First Amendment.
It has also renewed an old controversy among Catholics, who disagree as to whether it’s permissible to wear rosary beads around the neck.
Conflict began Sept. 30, a Thursday, when Mann Middle School’s principal, Scott Spanek, took to the school public address system to announce a new policy regarding the wearing of religious items. That’s where the story gets fuzzy.
Cainan Gostnell, a 13-year-old at Mann, heard the announcement and later told his parents the principal had forbidden the wearing of religious items — including his cross necklace. His parents complained, and soon the boy found himself represented by the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington.
School officials sent a written statement home to parents that clarified the policy, dated the Monday after the announcement. The cross was safe, according to the written statement, because the policy would ban the visible wearing of rosaries only. School District 11 spokeswoman Elaine Naleski insists the written statement is what Spanek said over the PA system. It states:
“Students, we need to remind everyone that here at Mann we respect all religious beliefs. Some members of the Catholic faith are offended by rosaries being worn around the neck like fashion accessories. If you wish to wear a rosary around your neck, it must, out of respect for others, be worn underneath your shirt. Failure to honor this request will be treated as a dress code violation.”
Media reports about the ban on wearing visible rosaries brought forth a statement from the ACLU, strongly condemning the policy. Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU in Colorado, wrote: “The First Amendment protects the right of students to express their faith by wearing crosses, rosaries or other religious symbols without interference from school officials.”
Media inquiries to the Diocese of Colorado Springs raised another issue when the diocesan vicar general, Msgr. Robert Jaeger, said rosaries are not intended to be worn as jewelry. The diocese said it “does not oppose” a decision by public schools to ban visible wearing of rosaries.
Print publications and talk radio misrepresented the statement as an authoritative pronouncement that rosaries are not to be worn at all. Msgr. Jaeger clarified that rosaries may be worn with reverence, but should not be treated as cosmetic jewelry.
After the school’s banning of visible rosaries resulted in criticism, school officials told a religion reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette they forbid the practice only because rosaries have become gang symbols.
“They’re in trouble on this,” said David Kopel, a Denver University professor of 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.”
If it’s because they worry about gang symbols, Kopel said, the school remains on shaky ground, but could potentially prevail under the right circumstances.
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, a former law clerk for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and an authority on First Amendment law, concurs with Kopel. Volokh said to ban visible rosaries because some might find them offensive represents a clear violation of the First Amendment, in absence of a dress code that forbids all jewelry and accessories. To ban visible rosaries as a safety concern, Volokh said the school would have to prove a “substantial risk of disruption,” meaning they would need strong evidence of violence inspired by the wearing of rosaries.
“I don’t have information as to whether there has been a problem with violence in the past,” said school spokeswoman Naleski.
Volokh said that the conflicting rationale for the ban of visible rosaries weakens the school’s position even more.
“The fact they’ve changed the story doesn’t make the original or the new one terribly credible,” Volokh said.
Ed White, senior counsel for the ACLJ, said his organization has backed off its threat to file suit on behalf of Gostnell. But that’s only because Gostnell doesn’t want to wear a rosary. He wants to wear a cross, and school administrators have given the student and the ACLJ written assurance that he may do so.
White said he would be eager to bring a case in defense of any student who desires to wear the rosary at Mann and cannot do so because of the policy. He said the school is likely to lose in court, whether the true concern is gangs or concerns about offending Catholics who don’t want the rosary worn around the neck. He suspects school officials will lose because the ACLJ won a case just like it in September, after a school in Schenectady, N.Y., banned wearing the rosary because gang members wear it. The ACLJ filed suit on behalf of student Raymond Hosier, and a federal court ordered the school to permit him to wear the rosary in plain view. In response, Schenectady school officials amended their policy.
“It’s our view that this discriminatory policy violated our client’s constitutionally protected rights of free speech and free exercise of religion,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ, in a Sept. 2 press release.
White, a devout Catholic, said he wore a scapular knotted with rosary decades after a cloistered nun made it for him. He also mentioned that nuns of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, who teach at the Catholic school his children attend in Ann Arbor, Mich., wear the rosary around their waists.
“A lot of Hispanic major league baseball players wear the rosary as a symbol of their faith,” White said. “There is nothing irreverent about a Catholic wearing the rosary as a sign of faith.”
Msgr. Ricardo Coronado-Arrascue, diocesan judicial vicar in Colorado Springs, concurred in comments to Catholic News Service that it’s correct that rosaries may be worn visibly with reverence. He said gangs, which have misappropriated the rosary, have used it as an affront to Catholicism.
“To belong to a gang is against Catholic teaching because it involves violent confrontation,” Msgr. Coronado-Arrascue said.
White said even if the Church had a rule against wearing rosary beads, and even if it offended faithful Catholics, it would have no bearing on a public school’s inability to forbid one type of religious expression.
“If a kid shows up in Colorado wearing an Oakland Raiders shirt to school, he will be sure to offend a lot of students who are Denver Broncos fans,” White said. “The First Amendment protects offensive expression. Wearing a rosary, in reverence, should not offend Catholics. But even if it does, the school has no authority to do this.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.