School Officials Discourage Christian, Agnostic Locker Signs In “Religions Battle”
By Mike Perleberg
(Vevay, Ind.) – Students at Switzerland County High School are getting a lesson in the limits of freedom of religion and speech in a public school.
Dueling locker signs between students identifying themselves as Christians and those who say they are agnostic have been ordered to be placed out of plain view by school officials, who say they are trying to prevent distractions in the classroom and hallways.
The episode began Monday when freshman student Tyler Manbeck and a friend decided to place signs on their lockers stating:
“I am a Christian. You can ridicule me. You can torture me. You can kill me. But you cannot change my mind.”
The sign also displays a wooden cross on a necklace.
Manbeck, 16, said he was inspired to display the sign by the recently-released film “God is Not Dead,” which he watched for the first time on Sunday.
After seeing his locker sign, other students at the high school began to request their own, which Manbeck has been happy to provide. Principal Gregg Goewert estimates 50 to 60 such signs were distributed by students.
For a couple days, the signs did not raise issues with anybody. But on Wednesday, Goewert tells Eagle 99.3, another student began to post around 100 new signs purporting his or her agnostic views. The signs closely resembling Manbeck’s were posted on lockers, walls, and other surfaces throughout the school. They stated:
“I am an agnostic. You can try to force religion on me. You can try to judge me. You can try to say I’m going to Hell. You’re not the one to decide any of that. I’m a person, too. Religion shouldn’t matter.”
The dueling signs on religious views became a distraction, as students opposed to the agnostic signs began to tear them down.
On Thursday, students arrived at school to find that the Christian signs had been moved by school personnel to inside the door of each locker displaying them. The agnostic signs were also moved out of plain view or taken down by staff.
“Our focus is on academics. Anything distracting the school environment we have to deal with,” says Goewert, who adds he wears a crucifix to work.
“It’s pretty well known public school law and court rulings about freedom of and freedom from (religion),” he said, referring to the landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
Goewert said that the high school does allow students to decorate the outside of their lockers only with school-related material promoting students’ involvement with athletics, clubs, extracurricular activities, and school functions. A lot of lockers have been decorated as such and remain that way, he says.
“The lockers are not intended as a public forum,” he explained. The Switzerland County Community Schools of Board Trustees could choose to adopt a new locker policy stating as much.
Unhappy he is now not allowed to display his sign outside his locker, Tyler Manbeck took to social media Thursday evening. He asked friends to share a photo of lockers belonging to him and a friend. He called the sign situation “a religions battle during school.” He also created a Facebook page titled Bring God Back in the Schools of America.
After receiving a swell of encouragement, Manbeck says he is moving the sign back to the outside of his locker Friday.
“They think it’s offending them, but we’re standing up for what we believe in. We’re not looking to force our beliefs on others,” he says.
Goewert said the small high school’s student body is typically a tight group and students have been good friends until this episode blew up. The school may start taking a more active role in teaching tolerance towards all views, he added.
Switzerland County Community Schools Superintendent Mike Jones – who serves as the pastor at Patriot Baptist Church – said he only became aware of the issue Thursday evening. He was beginning to investigate Friday morning.
Goewert and assistant principal David Todd said they would be speaking with students about the sign issue. No students have been disciplined as of Friday morning, they said.