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Justices decline Columbine memorial case

By William Mears

Students make tiles for a memorial to the shooting victims at Columbine High School.
Students make tiles for a memorial to the shooting victims at Columbine High School.

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The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to intervene in a dispute over an art project designed to pay tribute to victims of the Columbine High School shootings. CNN's Jeffrey Toobin reports (January 14)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday not to intervene in a dispute over a school art project designed to help grieving students after the Columbine High School mass shootings.

Justices were asked to decide whether school officials in Columbine, Colorado, violated the First Amendment when they excluded religious designs and expressions from a display of commemorative tiles prompted by the April 1999 shootings.

But the justices, as they do with most petitions filed with the court, opted not to accept the case. The decision lets stand an appeals court ruling that sided with Jefferson Public Schools.

"Jeffco Public Schools is grateful that the matter is now at an end, and we look forward to continuing our work with the families of the Columbine community to advance the healing process," the school district said in a written statement.

The district said it faced the prospect of trying to focus on education while promoting the healing process as the school was reopened after the shootings.

Twelve students and one teacher died when students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into the suburban Denver high school and opened fire on their classmates. Harris and Klebold then took their own lives.

The case focuses on whether the display by students violates the Constitution's separation of church and state. School officials created the tile project to help students heal through artistic expression. The tiles were to become a permanent display in school hallways.

School officials established guidelines for the proposed display after concerns were raised that the project could become an overwhelming, constant reminder of the shootings. The guidelines were included:

• No specific references to the attacks,

• No names of victims;

• No potentially offensive religious symbols or words.

Officials, who said they had the right to regulate expression in school-sponsored activities, subsequently rejected 80 to 90 tile submissions. One of the submissions read "Jesus Wept" and had the date of the shootings.

The legal question centers on whether the law allows the government to engage in so-called "viewpoint-based" discrimination.

Parents and community groups say it is a clear violation of their First Amendment rights, arguing schools could be free to suppress any religious expression, even removing controversial books from libraries or student art from hallways.

Lower courts ruled in the schools favor, and previous Supreme Court rulings have given schools broad authority to regulate school-sponsored expression.

In legal briefs filed with the court, school officials claimed viewpoint neutrality could be carried to extremes. It said the guidelines were designed to prevent the tiles from offending anyone based on their religious beliefs, and to uphold the division between church and state.

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