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Lawsuit targets Newberg school district policy banning political symbols

A photo of the rainbow sign displayed in Dundee Elementary School's Mindfulness Room, which is included in the lawsuit claim filed by ACLU Oregon.
A photo of the rainbow sign displayed in Dundee Elementary School's Mindfulness Room, which is included in the lawsuit claim filed by ACLU Oregon.

Newberg Public Schools and four of its board members face a lawsuit over a policy banning “political” and “quasi-political” symbols.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon filed the suit Friday on behalf of district employee Chelsea Shotts, a special education assistant at Dundee Elementary School.

The lawsuit revolves around a rainbow sign with a heart and the words “Be Known” — a slogan used by George Fox University — that was displayed in her classroom window. The sign became part of the first complaint stemming from the district’s new policy that bans district employees from displaying “political, quasi-political, or controversial” symbols. The rainbow sign also appears tied to the firing of the district’s former superintendent, Joe Morelock.

The ACLU Oregon lawsuit says the policy violates Oregon Constitution provisions intended to protect free expression, require equal treatment under the law and ensure laws aren’t vague. It’s filed against the district and the four board members who approved the policy: David Brown, Brian Shannon, Trevor DeHart and Renee Powell. In the lawsuit, Shotts doesn’t ask for financial compensation.

“We want this policy to be declared unconstitutional, so that not only doesn’t impact Chelsea’s rights, but it doesn’t limit the rights of anybody in the school district,” ACLU Oregon legal director Kelly Simon told OPB. “And we want teachers to feel free to tell their students that their lives matter — tell their queer students, tell their Black students, tell every student that they matter and they can be safe when they come to school.”

The lawsuit says the district’s policy fails to provide a clear definition of “political” and “quasi-political.” Board members struggled with the policy’s language, too, when they discussed the complaint filed against Schotts’ sign at their Nov. 9 meeting.

“This is like the greyest of grey areas for me, because is any rainbow pattern automatically a Pride flag?” Shannon said at the meeting. “I don’t think it is. My daughter wears rainbow pajamas all the time. So, this is a tough one, I’m not going to lie.”

Board member DeHart added later: “There’s many types of different ducks in the world, and they’ve got different coloring, different shapes, but in the end, they’re all ducks. If we take a Pride flag or a [Black Lives Matter] flag or a [Make America Great Again] flag and put a heart on it, does it change the essence of what it is?”

The complaint over the rainbow sign was filed by Dundee resident Michael Gunn just two days after the school board passed its new policy in September. The following month, former superintendent Morelock emailed Gunn with his determination that the sign “is not a political, quasi-political, or controversial sign, and should not be removed,” according to meeting documents.

Morelock’s determination was included in the Nov. 9 public meeting packet — the same meeting in which board members voted to oust Morelock as superintendent. Morelock would later tell OPB’s Think Out Loud that some people probably felt “frustrated” that work to enforce the policy wasn’t moving quickly enough.

The board ultimately voted to table its decision on Morelock’s determination that Schott’s rainbow sign isn’t “political, quasi-political, or controversial,” and it’s yet to publicly vote on the matter. The ACLU Oregon lawsuit says Schotts fears that she faces discipline or retaliation over the sign, particularly after Morelock’s termination.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

April Ehrlich began freelancing for Jefferson Public Radio in the fall of 2016, and then officially joined the team as its Morning Edition Host and a Jefferson Exchange producer in August 2017.