MADISON, Wis. – A Tomah High School student has filed a federal lawsuit alleging his art teacher censored his drawing because it featured a cross and a biblical reference.
The lawsuit alleges other students were allowed to draw "demonic" images and asks a judge to declare a class policy prohibiting religion in art unconstitutional.
"We hear so much today about tolerance," said David Cortman, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal advocacy group representing the student. "But where is the tolerance for religious beliefs? The whole purpose of art is to reflect your own personal experience. To tell a student his religious beliefs can legally be censored sends the wrong message."
Tomah School District Business Manager Greg Gaarder said the district hadn't seen the lawsuit and declined to comment.
According to the lawsuit, the student's art teacher asked his class in February to draw landscapes. The student, a senior identified in the lawsuit by the initials A.P., added a cross and the words "John 3:16 A sign of love" in his drawing.
His teacher, Julie Millin, asked him to remove the reference to the Bible, saying students were making remarks about it. He refused, and she gave him a zero on the project.
Millin showed the student a policy for the class that prohibited any violence, blood, sexual connotations or religious beliefs in artwork. The lawsuit claims Millin told the boy he had signed away his constitutional rights when he signed the policy at the beginning of the semester.
The boy tore the policy up in front of Millin, who kicked him out of class. Later that day, assistant principal Cale Jackson told the boy his religious expression infringed on other students' rights.
Jackson told the boy, his stepfather and his pastor at a meeting a week later that religious expression could be legally censored in class assignments. Millin stated at the meeting the cross in the drawing also infringed on other students' rights.
The boy received two detentions for tearing up the policy. Jackson referred questions about the lawsuit to Gaarder.
Sometime after that meeting, the boy's metals teacher rejected his idea to build a chain-mail cross, telling him it was religious and could offend someone, the lawsuit claims. The boy decided in March to shelve plans to make a pin with the words "pray" and "praise" on it because he was afraid he'd get a zero for a grade.
The lawsuit also alleges school officials allow other religious items and artwork to be displayed on campus.
A Buddha and Hindu figurines are on display in a social studies classroom, the lawsuit claims, adding the teacher passionately teaches Hindu principles to students.
In addition, a replica of Michaelangelo's "The Creation of Man" is displayed at the school's entrance, a picture of a six-limbed Hindu deity is in the school's hallway and a drawing of a robed sorcerer hangs on a hallway bulletin board.
Drawings of Medusa, the Grim Reaper with a scythe and a being with a horned head and protruding tongue hang in the art room and demonic masks are displayed in the metals room, the lawsuit alleges.
A.P. suffered unequal treatment because of his religion even though student expression is protected by the First Amendment, according to the lawsuit, which was filed Friday.
"Students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate," the lawsuit said. "No compelling state interest exists to justify the censorship of A.P.'s religious expression."