Jewish Student Allowed to Wear Star of David Pendant as Mississippi School Board Reverses Policy

Affiliate: ACLU of Mississippi
August 24, 1999 12:00 am

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GULFPORT, MS — Facing an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit and outcry from both Jewish and Christian leaders, a Mississippi school board last night rescinded a policy that barred a Jewish student from wearing his Star of David pendant because school officials considered it a gang symbol.

The Harrison County School Board voted unanimously to exempt religious symbols from its policy prohibiting students from wearing anything that could be viewed as a gang symbol.

The reversal comes two working days after the ACLU of Mississippi filed suit in federal district court, seeking protection of 11th grader Ryan Green’s First Amendment right to religious liberty.

The ACLU said that the Star of David, a cross and other religious symbols are constitutionally protected forms of religious speech and that Ryan and other students at Harrison Central High School should not have to sacrifice their First Amendment rights under threat of school punishment.

“While we are pleased with the decision, it is regrettable that Ryan’s religious freedom was violated for two weeks before the school board finally realized what the rest of the country already knew–that the Star of David is a religious symbol, not a gang symbol,” said David Ingebretsen, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi.

The controversy arose two weeks ago when Ryan and his father went to sign up for fall classes and a guidance counselor told Ryan that his Star of David had to be worn on the inside of his shirt “for his own good.” To no avail, Mr. Green explained to the counselor that Ryan wore the pendant as a symbol of his family’s Jewish faith.

“I am not wearing the Star of David to make people think I am a member of some criminal gang,” Ryan Green said in an affidavit submitted to the court on Friday. “I am wearing it because of my Jewish religious heritage.”

The family then appealed to school officials, who insisted that the Star of David could be seen as a gang symbol. On August 16, the board unanimously upheld the anti-gang policy.

Amid mounting national attention, the controversial decision was condemned by religious groups and leaders nationwide, including B’nai B’rith, a group that defends Jews against anti-Semitism, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, and Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright.

Ryan’s father Tom Green told the media that the policy change was a clear victory.

“It’s a wonderful feeling,” he said. “We are truly joyous. As a father to a son this is the best principle I could teach him: Stand up for your rights.”

The ACLU has not yet decided whether to drop the suit. “The suit not only concerned Ryan Green’s rights, but everyone’s First Amendment rights,” Ingebretsen said. “Besides, we as yet have not seen anything from the board in writing, so we want to take a careful look at what they say, if they say anything.”

The case is Green v. Harrison County School District et al., filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Southern Division. ACLU of Mississippi volunteer attorney Robert McDuff, of Jackson, is lead counsel, working with attorney Reilly Morse of Gulfport.

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