The Lubbock Independent School District in Texas is home to Lowrey Field, where the four high schools in the area play their home football games. The 8,500-seat stadium also houses a digital billboard where companies like Whataburger, Fuddruckers, and United Supermarkets pay for ads to run during the big games.
So, naturally, the man behind JesusTattoo.org wanted to place an ad there, too:
(The website has nothing to do with tattoos, by the way. It’s just one guy’s failed idea of a “hip” way to convert teens to Christianity.)
Believe it or not — and to their credit — the district said no. It was religious, they said, and they didn’t want to violate the Constitution.
He may have had a point. According to the lawsuit, the district allowed ads from Lubbock Christian University on the billboard while allowing other religious groups to advertise at other sports venues in the district:
The District has also permitted, inter alia, Mission Rehab Services, Chick-fil-A, and Full Armor Ministries, a local church, to advertise at District basketball facilities, and numerous nonschool-related organizations, including Bethany Baptist Church, to place large banners, year-round on a Monterey High School fence facing one of the highest traffic intersections in Lubbock
However, Elie Mystal of Above the Law Redline said that didn’t mean the Jesus billboard would get a free pass:
Two wrongs don’t make a right. Even if the Lubbock school district has been playing fast and loose with religious messaging in the public sphere, that doesn’t mean it is now required to put everybody’s religious programming on the Jumbotron.
And, without seeing the ads that have actually been accepted from the other religious organizations, it’s likely that Lubbock schools have been operating well within the limits of the Establishment Clause all along. The Constitution doesn’t prevent a religious organization from taking out an ad at a football game. It seeks to prevent preferential treatment of one religion over another.
There’s no doubt that the ad in question was fully pro-Jesus.
Still, that didn’t stop the (misnamed) Alliance Defending Freedom from fighting for their client:
“Christians should not be prevented from expressing their beliefs in public venues,” added Legal Counsel Matt Sharp. “We hope that Lubbock Independent School District will revise its policy so that everyone can exercise their constitutionally protected freedoms.”
Last year, the case seemed to be resolved when a federal judge ruled that the school district was right to reject the ad.
And just wait till you hear the reason for the rejection offered by the district:
The first reason offered to Plaintiffs for denying approval to run the advertisement is that Defendant maintains a no-visible-tattoo policy for its students and faculty while on school property. Defendant further supports its position by relying upon Texas law generally prohibiting tattoo artists from providing a tattoo to anyone younger than 18 years of age. Defendant argues that running the ad would have undermined Defendant’s tattoo policy because the ad was based upon conduct prohibited by Defendant’s dress-code policies.
Even if the tattoos were removed from the image, though, the URL would’ve remained the same. So the problem would have remained.
The other reason went much more to the heart of why the judge sided with the district:
… The Court finds, as argued by Defendant and admitted by Plaintiffs, that Plaintiffs’ ad is properly characterized as a proselytizing message designed to advance Plaintiffs’ “sincerely held religious beliefs” to the viewer.
As such, the Court finds that the subject matter of the “Jesustattoo” advertisement was religiously oriented and sought to advance a religious message. Thus, the ad “is not of a similar character to any previous use of the school’s [forum].”
In other words, it would’ve put the district in jeopardy of another lawsuit claiming they were endorsing Christianity.
The ADF wasn’t pleased with the decision:
Kerri Kupec of the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom representing Little Pencil said in an email, “We are disappointed with the court’s decision and are evaluating our options for appeal.”
LISD released this statement: “Throughout this process, we have asserted that our actions were in keeping with district policies, state and federal law, and we are pleased that the court ruled in favor of Lubbock ISD. We will continue to focus on our mission of educating students and hope we can put this behind us and give our complete attention to that important work.”
Earlier this year, an appeals court agreed with the district court’s ruling, but the ADF asked for a second opinion. The appeals court, last week, granted them a rehearing of the case. So it’s not entirely over yet.
Either way, whether it’s because of the visible tattoos or endorsement of Christianity, the District was in the right to say no to the ad. If they accepted it, they would have to allow ads from Satanist, atheist, and Pagan groups. It’s fun for us, sure, but it would put the students and faculty in the middle of a religious billboard battle. The District has good reason not to let that happen.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier. Via Religion Clause)