A recent lawsuit arising from an incident in Madison, Wisconsin raises a variety of legal and moral issues. The gist of the situation is that a high school student received a zero on an art class assignment because he included religious elements (a cross and a “John 3:16 A sign of love”) in his work.
The assignment was to draw a landscape. The teacher, Julie Millin, had set a policy for the class that prohibited violence, sex, and religious beliefs from the work. Allegedly, she told the student that by signing the policy he had “signed away” his constitutional rights. Hence, the grade of zero on the work. Demonic images apparently do not count as religious works-some students did drawings of demons (or devils) and these were accepted without any problems.
The student had also expressed the desire to create a metal cross and a pin with “pray” and “praise” on it in his metals class. His cross plan was rejected and he decided not to create the pin because he was worried he would get a zero for a grade on that project as well.
Interestingly enough, the school does allow a Buddha and Hindu figurines in the social studies classroom and an image of a Hindu god is displayed in the school as well.
The student is currently bringing a lawsuit against the school contending that his rights have been violated.
On the face of it, there seems to be two main problems here. The first is that the school seems to lack a consistent approach to religious images. The second is that the student’s rights certainly do seem to have been violated.
In terms of the first problem, if the school permits non-Christian images and figures on school grounds, then it would certainly be inconsistent to exclude Christian images. Tolerance, if it is to be meaningful, must be extended fairly and not just to specific groups. After all, the point of tolerance is to be tolerant rather than intolerant. While tolerance should not be without limits, there seems to be no justification for excluding Christian images while allowing Buddhist and Hindu images.
It might be replied that the case with the student is a special case. After all, he did sign the policy and agreed to not include religious content in his art. Of course, this then raises the question of whether it is acceptable to place such a limit on a student’s work. This raises the second problem.
On the face of it, the student’s right of free expression seems to have been violated. I’m not a lawyer, but it seems likely that a person cannot simply sign away his Constitutional rights in such a context. If this was possible, it would certainly grant school teachers rather extraordinary legal powers. Of course, it is reasonable to consider that his rights have not been violated.
As a professor I set clear requirements for my paper assignments. If a student fails to meet those requirements, then the grade reflects this. If, for example, a student is supposed to write a paper on a case in ethics and the student instead writes a paper on why pot is fun to smoke (this has happened a few times), then he gets a zero on the paper. This is not because I’m against smoking pot, but because a paper that praises pot is not an ethics paper. A paper arguing that using pot is morally acceptable would, obviously enough, be an ethics paper. This seems quite reasonable-after all, a class is aimed at achieving certain goals and the assignments in a class should be designed to meet those goals. This entails that some things simply will not fulfill the legitimate requirements of an assignment. I do not violate the student’s rights when a paper on pot smoking gets a zero. This is because the paper does not meet the legitimate requirements for the class assignment. After all, it is certainly legitimate to expect a paper in an ethics class to be in the subject of ethics. If I assigned a grade of zero to a paper solely because I disagree with the student’s view, then that would not be fair or acceptable. After all, that is not a legitimate basis for assessing a student’s work.
Turning to the art assignment, the question is whether or not the religious element is something the teacher has a legitimate right to exclude and use as the basis for grading. In the situation at hand, the student was to draw a landscape. If he had just drawn a cross, then a failing grade would be legitimate. However, he did provide the required landscape. To fail him because he included the religious content certainly seems to be unjust. After all, what academic flaw did that introduce to the work that would justify such a grade?
It might be countered that the exclusion of religious belief was part of a policy designed to keep students from creating offensive art. After all, students should probably be prevented from drawing graphic violence and sexuality in an art class. It could be argued that since religious art might offend some people, it follows that it should be banned as well. However, the presentation of a religious belief does not seem to cross the same boundary that graphic violence or sexuality crosses. Further, there does not seem to be any right not to be offended by a person’s belief. As such, there seems to be no legitimate ground to deny a student the right to display a religious belief in his or her school art projects. Further, as long as the work otherwise fulfills the requirements, there is no legitimate ground to fail the student.