Friday, September 26, 2003

A federal lawsuit was filed this week against the state of Washington because a family was banned from inscribing a message with the word “Jesus” on a commemorative brick at a state park there.

The public-interest law firm American Center for Law and Justice brought the action Wednesday in federal district court in Seattle on behalf of Dan and Olga Buchanan, of Lynnwood.

“This is a case where the state has violated the free-speech rights of our clients by targeting a message for exclusion because of its religious content,” ACLJ Senior Counsel Stuart J. Roth said. “The law is very clear: if a state permits a wide variety of messages to be posted in a public area, the state cannot reject a message because it contains a religious reference.”

According to the ACLJ, the state initiated a fund-raiser to build and maintain a playground for children in St. Edward State Park in Kenmore, Wash. To raise the money, the state permitted community members to buy a commemorative brick for $100, inscribe it with a message, then have it placed in the playground.

The state however, according to the complaint, rejected a request in April 2003 from the Buchanans to include a message that read: “Thank you Jesus, Daria & Evan Buchanan.”

But Virginia Painter, spokeswoman for Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, said the state is not responsible because the entire playground project was initiated and controlled by a community group.

“The state didn’t do anything,” Miss Painter said. “This was a community group that … initiated the idea, came up with guidelines for collecting the money, and sold the bricks. They decided on the criteria for the bricks.”

In a letter to the Buchanans last month, the coordinator of the playground program said that “because the Saint Edward State Park Playground is located on public land, our intent and unwritten policy for all of the 511 bricks sold was to engrave only nonreligious requests in order to uphold the separation of church and state as dictated by our state constitution.”

Miss Painter noted that the coordinator was from the community and not a state employee.

ACLJ spokesman Gene Kapp disagreed.

“The decision was made by an individual who was serving as an agent of the state,” Mr. Kapp said. “The state cannot relinquish responsibility for what takes place in its parks.”

Mr. Roth said the state acted unconstitutionally, because it excluded the message solely on the basis of its religious content.

“If someone could write ‘I want to thank my math teacher, Mr. Smith,’ then we could write ‘I want to thank Jesus Christ,’” Mr. Roth said.

The suit contends officials allowed residents to use a wide variety of messages on the bricks — including one that read, “God Loves All Children” — but rejected the Buchanans’ message because of the word “Jesus.”

Mr. Roth wants the court to declare the state’s actions unconstitutional, grant an injunction preventing the state from continuing such actions, and permit the commemorative brick with the message containing “Jesus” to be placed in the playground.

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