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Strange Bedfellows: Why Are Some Religious Groups Defending ’Bong Hits 4 Jesus’?

by David Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life March 27, 2007

A recent Supreme Court case involving the free speech rights of students is producing some very unusual alliances. Christian conservative groups, such as the American Center for Law and Justice, the Christian Legal Society and the Alliance Defense Fund, are defending a student named Joseph Frederick who was punished by his high school principal for holding up a sign that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”

At first glance, it seems odd, even a little absurd, that Christian organizations would make common cause with someone equating Jesus Christ with smoking marijuana. But a closer examination of the issues in the case, Morse v. Frederick, reveals why some conservative religious groups have decided to support Frederick’s right to make unorthodox statements.

The case, which was argued before the High Court on March 19, was prompted by a 2002 incident involving Olympic celebrations in downtown Juneau, Alaska. Local high school students were excused from class in order to have a chance to watch the Olympic torch as it was carried through the city on its way to the winter games in Salt Lake City. During the festivities, a number of students, led by Frederick, unfurled a banner with the controversial phrase, an event that was captured on live television.

After the celebrations, the school principal, Deborah Morse, asked Frederick to remove the banner. When he refused, Morse had the sign taken down and Frederick suspended. Frederick in turn sued the principal and the school district, arguing that that his First Amendment rights to free speech had been violated.

The suit has attracted a great deal of attention, in part because it offers the Supreme Court an opportunity to revisit an important area of First Amendment jurisprudence that it last considered in 1988. In this case, the court must weigh the student’s right to free expression against the school’s interest in prohibiting speech that is disruptive or otherwise conflicts with its educational mission.

Both sides in the case have received support from the usual quarters. The Bush Administration, as well as the National School Boards Association and drug control groups, have sided with Principal Morse and the school district. Meanwhile, Frederick’s cause has elicited support from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Individual Rights and other civil liberties organizations.

But more than a few eyebrows were raised when the likes of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian public interest law firm founded by Pat Robertson, submitted an amicus brief on behalf of Frederick. Yet ACLJ, as well as other similar organizations, see a clear parallel between Frederick’s plight and that of many religious, especially Christian, students around the country. “School districts must not be entrusted with the authority to arbitrarily determine what student speech is offensive and off limits,” the group said in a statement released on the day of the Supreme Court oral argument. “In the future, that could put all student speech at risk — including speech that advocates Christian beliefs on any issue.”

Indeed, groups like ACLJ frequently find themselves defending students who have been reprimanded for religious expression that local school officials find offensive. For instance, in a recent case, Harper v. Poway Unified School District (2006), a student at a California high school was disciplined for wearing and refusing to remove a T-shirt that read: “Homosexuality Is Shameful, Romans 1:27.” The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school, but the Supreme Court vacated or erased the lower court decision, ruling that the case was now moot, since the student had graduated and left the school.

If the Supreme Court decides in favor of Frederick and against the school district, it will almost certainly strengthen the right of students, including religious students, to express opinions that other students and school officials find objectionable. This time, it’s “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” that raised a principal’s ire. But the Christian public interest groups involved in the Frederick case believe that next time it might be an entirely different, more reverential invocation of Christ’s name that lands a student in hot water.

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