College in Colorado denies donor request to include Bible verse on plaque

The Colorado School of Mines sought to boost fundraising by offering donors a nameplate with an inscription of their choice, only to reject one donor’s message because it included references to two Bible verses.

The Alliance Defending Freedom announced in a press release Thursday that it has filed a federal lawsuit against the school alleging that its refusal to accept the request was a violation of the donor’s constitutional rights.

As part of a fundraising campaign for the Clear Creek Athletics Complex, CSM offered “naming opportunities” entailing a personalized nameplate on lockers in the facility’s football locker room, upon which donors could place a message or quote up to three lines long.

Michael Lucas, a 2003 CSM graduate who once played for the school’s football team, decided to take the school up on its offer, donating $2,500 and requesting that his quote include references to two Bible verses: Colossians 3:23 and Micah 5:9.

The Colossians verse reads: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” The Micah verse states: “Your hand will be lifted up against your adversaries, and all your enemies will be cut off.”

According to the ADF lawsuit, CSM officials claimed that Lucas’ desired quote would have violated the separation of church and state because the Colossians verse includes the word “Lord.” Even though the term would not actually have appeared on the nameplate, the college asserted that merely printing the verses would violate its policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion.

“The school initially imposed no restrictions—or even guidelines—on the type of message a donor could include, and contrary to what the school is arguing, the First Amendment protects—not restricts—a simple reference to a Bible verse,” ADF Legal Counsel Natalie Decker argued in the press release. “It’s patently ridiculous to argue that a Bible reference that doesn’t include the text of the verse is somehow inappropriate simply because someone might look it up and see that ‘Lord’ is mentioned there.”

Other inscriptions, which CSM apparently did not find as problematic as the one requested by Lucas, include such admonitions as “Give ‘em Hell;” “OK Gentleman, it’s time to gird your loins;” and “Take your whiskey clear.”

CSM Lucas ultimately submitted an alternative quote that the school accepted, but the ADF lawsuit maintains that “the censorship of Mr. Lucas’s religious speech—while permitting similar, but non-religious, private speech from other members of the public regarding the same and similar subject matters—also constitutes viewpoint discrimination, which is unconstitutional in any type of forum.”

ADF is seeking a permanent injunction forcing the school to accept Lucas’ original message, as well as a declaration from the court that CSM’s actions were unconstitutional, but is not pursuing punitive monetary awards, asking only that Lucas be reimbursed for the cost of the suit and that each of the officials named as defendants be required to pay $1.00 as symbolic restitution for violating his constitutional rights.

“Public colleges are supposed to be a marketplace of ideas,” observed ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer. “We hope CSM will end the need for this lawsuit and revise its policy so that it affirms the constitutionally protected freedoms of all alumni, regardless of their religious beliefs.”

CSM Director of Public Relations Karen Gilbert indicated that the school would not concede the issue, telling Campus Reform that CSM considers the inscriptions to be a form of government, rather than individual, speech, and therefore subject to different strictures under the First Amendment.

“We are disappointed to learn of Mr. Lucas’ lawsuit against Colorado School of Mines,” Gilbert said, adding, “We worked with him to come to an agreement on an inscription that both reflected his intentions and was consistent with our obligations as a public university.

“We strongly disagree with his assertion that Mines impermissibly restricted his speech based on religious or viewpoint discrimination,” she continued, claiming that “under recent United States Supreme Court case law, the speech at issue is considered government speech as it is permanently inscribed on university-owned property. As a state institution, we are bound by the U.S. Constitution and our own policy prohibiting unlawful discrimination by promoting or supporting one faith or belief over others.”

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