FFRF defends free speech after Va. school board targets student expression

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is objecting to a Virginia school board’s inappropriate reaction to a student’s artwork for critiquing religion.

A Fort Defiance High School student recently used art to express the idea that “growing up queer meant you couldn’t be saved by God.” The background of the piece features pages from the bible while the foreground shows praying hands clasping a rosary. There are blood stains in rainbow colors. The text reads, “God loves you … but not enough to save you.”

Multiple Augusta County School Board members reportedly stated that they were personally offended by the student’s artwork. The board held a special meeting to consider taking adverse action towards the student’s speech. Fortunately, the board included its legal counsel in the meeting and avoided discriminating against the student based on their religious viewpoint or curtailing the student’s speech. However, the board has announced it “will look at possible policy adjustments or other possible solutions to help remedy a problem like this in the future.”

The best art evokes strong emotional reactions and stirs discussion, FFRF stresses. The only “problem” that the board needs to address “in the future” is the conduct of its members when confronted with viewpoints that conflict with their own personal religious beliefs. The board cannot discriminate against students based on their religious beliefs and religious expression. This kind of viewpoint discrimination would be a violation of not only the Establishment Clause, but also the Free Exercise Clause and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

“As public school board members, you have a responsibility to uphold the First Amendment rights of all August County Public Schools students, regardless of your personal beliefs,” FFRF attorney Chris Line writes to Board Chair David R. Shiflett. “Your decision to hold a special meeting regarding a student’s artwork and your implication that this kind of message will not be allowed in the future isolates a specific viewpoint for censorship.”

Viewpoint discrimination is a blatant violation of the Free Speech Clause. The Supreme Court has ruled school districts cannot ban information based on a “dislike of the ideas.”

FFRF is urging Augusta County School Board members not to allow their personal beliefs to interfere with their constitutional responsibilities to their students and the broader community and to refrain from further attempts to interfere with student speech.

“This is a clear case of the stifling of a perspective that, based on their personal religious views, makes school officials uncomfortable,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “That’s not the way school board policy should be shaped. We salute this student’s courage.”

You can read the full FFRF letter here.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members across the country, including more than 900 members in Virginia. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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