Court rules students can wear Wiccan pentagrams in school

Star News, April 28, 2000
By Kevin O'Neal

Federal judge says Elwood school officials violated the 2 seniors' First Amendment rights.

Two Elwood high school students have won the right to wear Wiccan pentagrams as teacher's aides in an elementary school.

With the help of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, the students had filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court after being told by school principals they could not wear the Wiccan symbols while working in the cadet teaching program.

The federal court decision, issued Thursday by U.S. District Judge S. Hugh Dillin, said the school system had violated the students' First Amendment rights to wear the symbols of Wicca, a nature-based religion.

"It's hard for anybody to stand up for their beliefs, especially in a case where there's so much publicity," said Jacquelyn E. Bowie, the ICLU attorney who argued the case. "But this was a clear violation in our minds."

The ruling imposes a preliminary injunction on the Elwood Community School Corporation to allow the students to wear the Wiccan star symbols.

The school system can appeal the decision, but any appellate ruling probably would not come until after the students graduate this spring.

Edward B. Alley, the attorney representing Elwood schools, declined to comment Thursday.

Two seniors at Elwood High School, Brandi Lehman and Shauntee Chaffin, brought the suit against the school system. Both say they are followers of Wicca and had worn Wiccan pentagrams, an inverted five-pointed star, to high school and cadet teaching classes.

As cadet teachers, they worked with regular classroom teachers in third-grade classes at Edgewood Elementary School.

Their lawsuit said they had been told by the principals of both schools not to wear their Wiccan pentagrams while working in the elementary school. The students said the prohibition prompted them to leave the teaching program.

During an April 21 hearing before Dillin, school officials said the students' Wiccan beliefs became a source of controversy when Lehman made copies of a Wiccan document on the elementary school's photocopier. The principal objected to its references to witchcraft, nudity and flogging.

School officials said the students were removed from the teaching program because they misused the copying machine, then walked away from the elementary school after a confrontation with the school principal.

Dillin determined there was not enough evidence to prove that the students abused any photocopying or attendance rules.

A legal precedent used to bolster the ICLU case was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969.

In Des Moines, Iowa, in 1965, a group of high school students wore black arm bands to class during a protest against the Vietnam war. School officials banned the arm bands, but the students sued.

The Supreme Court decided that the arm band protest was a form of "pure speech." That kind of expression could not be banned unless it interfered with school work or discipline, a seven-justice majority ruled.

In the Elwood case, Dillin wrote: "No one testifying at the preliminary injunction hearing related a single disruption caused by the pentagrams."

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