(by Nathan Burchfiel, CNSNews.com) – The Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments in an unusual free speech case that found Christian groups and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on the same side of the debate.
The groups have put aside their differences to support a former high school student who was punished for holding a sign declaring, “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”
When the Olympic torch passed by his Alaska high school in 2002, Joe Frederick and some friends unfurled the banner, whose slogan refers to smoking marijuana. Frederick, at the time an 18-year-old senior, was suspended for the prank.
The ACLU came to Frederick’s defense, arguing that the school violated his free speech rights by unfairly censoring speech based on its content. In the 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines, the court found that students maintain their constitutional rights in school and that expression that doesn’t disrupt education cannot be censored.
“For decades the law has been that students have the constitutional right to free speech even on school campuses,” Frederick’s attorney, Douglas Mertz, said in a statement Monday. “In this case the school district seeks to overrule decades of solid sensible law.”
Christian groups often deride the ACLU as being anti-Christian because of its opposition to public displays of religion, such as Ten Commandments monuments and nativity scenes.
In this instance, the case has attracted the attention of several Christian legal groups that normally find themselves at odds with the ACLU. Even though Frederick’s banner was a joke, the Christian groups believe his use of the name of Jesus makes the case an important one.
The Christian Legal Society is one of several groups to file friend of the court briefs in the case. The brief express support for Frederick and opposition to the school and its lawyer team, which includes former federal special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
Calling the stunt “tasteless” and “juvenile,” the CLS nonetheless supports Frederick because, it argues, a victory for the school would “almost certainly end up undermining legitimate expressions of religion by public school students.”
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), another Christian group, also filed a brief supporting the student and his ACLU attorneys.
“While we strongly disagree with the student’s message in this case, the fact is that unless student speech is protected, a message considered appropriate today could be deemed offensive tomorrow,” ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow, said in a statement.
“We want to ensure that students who hold pro-life and pro-family positions will continue to be able to present those messages without censorship,” Sekulow said. “School districts must not be entrusted with the authority to arbitrarily determine what student speech is offensive and off limits.”
The ACLJ is visibly at odds with the ACLU on many other issues. The group has encouraged supporters to donate money to help “take on the ACLU.” A page on the ACLJ website is dedicated to “battling the ACLU agenda.”
ACLJ accuses the ACLU of being “out of step not only with the American people, but oftentimes with common sense.” The group seeks opportunities to represent ACLU opponents in the courts.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has previously ruled in Frederick’s favor. The Supreme Court will decide to overturn that decision or affirm it. The decision is expected to be issued this summer.
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1. Describe the Supreme Court case that has Christian groups and the ACLU on the same side of the debate.
2. How is the ACLU arguing the case?
3. Why do Christian groups criticize the ACLU?
4. a) What does the Christian Legal Society think about Joe Frederick’s prank?
b) Why has the CLS filed a friend of the court brief in support of Joe Frederick?
5. a) What is the ACLJ?
b) Define “friend of the court.”
c) Why is the ACLJ also supporting Joe Frederick? Be specific.
6. What do you think about the prank, and the lawsuit?
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