Several Religious Right legal groups found themselves in an unusual spot recently: advocating for the right of a public high school student to display a banner reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”
The Religious Right groups have made it clear that they disagree with the message on the banner but say allowing school officials to suppress it could lead to similar treatment for religious messages in public schools.
The case goes back to 2002, when Joseph Frederick, then a student at a public high school in Alaska, unfurled the banner while the Olympic torch was passing through town. School officials were not amused and suspended Frederick. They said his banner conflicted with the school’s position that illegal drugs are dangerous.
Frederick has said he didn’t mean to knock religion or promote the use of drugs and has called the banner a “free speech experiment.” His case was argued before the Supreme Court March 19.
The case has brought forth an unusual alignment of groups on Frederick’s behalf. Not only is the American Civil Liberties Union supporting Frederick, but so is the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, the Christian Legal Society and the Liberty Legal Institute.
The ADF, which normally seeks media coverage of its activities, kept a low profile in this case.
“It’s very difficult to explain our position in a press release,” ADF attorney Kevin Theriot told Religion News Service.
The conservative groups are worried that a decision against Frederick would give public school officials too much power to curb student speech. They believe it could lead to a crackdown on efforts by evangelical students to speak against abortion or witness to fellow students about faith.
Some groups that are normally on the other side of the cultural divide agree. The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a leading gay-rights group, also filed a brief siding with Frederick.
Not all religious conservatives are on board. During oral arguments, Kenneth Starr, the former Whitewater prosecutor who is often friendly to Religious Right causes, argued in favor of the school district. Starr asserted that public school officials should have the power to squelch messages that conflict with their basic mission.
A decision in the Morse v. Frederick case is expected by the end of June.