Editor's note: The Associated Press reported May 20 that the Tomah School District had formally agreed to allow religious expression in student artwork to settle a federal lawsuit. Final settlement details included the district's agreeing to remove any record of two detentions the student received for arguing the policy, to pay attorney fees and to grade the assignment. Attorney David Cortman said the boy got a B+.
MADISON, Wis. — The Tomah School District has agreed to permit religious expression in student artwork in response to a federal lawsuit.
The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal advocacy group, sued the district in March on behalf of a Tomah High School student. ADF alleged an art teacher gave the student a zero on an assigned drawing of a landscape because the student included a cross and the words "John 3:16 A sign of love."
The teacher cited a class policy that prohibited any expressions of violence, blood, sex or religious beliefs in artwork. The lawsuit alleged the student was treated unfairly because of his religion.
Lori M. Lubinsky, the district's attorney, said in a statement that the policy had been in place for more than a decade. It was meant to keep gang symbols and other "negative expression" out of student artwork.
"Tomah art teachers had the best of intentions when they put the original policy in place," Lubinsky said. "They implemented the policy to keep students from being exposed to potentially offensive satanic or gang-related beliefs ... the art teachers did not receive any complaints from students who appreciated the policy."
Students still will be barred from including gang symbols, violence, blood and sex in their work. But they will be allowed to express their religious beliefs as long as it satisfies the assignment criteria.
The lawsuit questions why the student, identified only as A.P., was prohibited from expressing his religion when school officials allow other religious items and artwork to be displayed on campus. The lawsuit claims Buddha and Hindu figurines are on display in a social studies classroom where the teacher passionately teaches Hindu principles.
That class is a world history class, not an art class, and the district is required by state law to teach historic religions in it, Lubinsky said.
ADF attorney David Cortman called the district's decision to allow religious expression a victory. He and Lubinsky will draft a formal settlement within the next few weeks, he said.