Religious Code at HI High School a Relic of the Past Under Court Settlement

Affiliate: ACLU of Hawaii
January 28, 2003 12:00 am

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HONOLULU–The American Civil Liberties of Hawai’i today announced the settlement of a lawsuit filed in federal district court on behalf of a male high school student here who challenged the constitutionality of his school’s honor code that in part requires pledging “love for God.”

“This settlement reaffirms that a public school has no business telling students what they should or should not believe in relation to God,” said Brent White, Legal Director of the ACLU.

“The student who wrote this code in 1927 was certainly entitled to believe that students should love God,” he added. “The problem arose when the school dug up this code in the 1990s and decided to promote it as the official school code of honor. The code is simply not appropriate as an official school code in today’s multi-religious, multi-cultural society.”

A number of local clergy went on the record as supporters of the ACLU’s client in this case including Lutheran, Methodist and Buddhist ministers.

The lawsuit, Carol Ann Ornellas v. Patricia Hamamoto and Milton Shishido, was filed last year by the ACLU of Hawai’i on behalf of James Ornellas, a student at McKinley High School who objected to the overtly religious tenor of the school’s Code of Honor which reads in part: “As a student of McKinley, I stand For Love of God and all Mankind.”

“I am not sure if God exists or not, but I don’t think it is right for the school to tell me, or any other student, that I should love God,” said Ornellas. “To me it is the same as the school telling me to love Buddha or Allah. I think the honor code violates students’ freedom to form their own religious beliefs without being told by the school what they should believe.”

According to the ACLU, the inclusion of “Love of God” in the school Code of Honor conveys the message that in order to be “honorable” a student must love “God.” The lawsuit argues that this is improper because it excludes students who belong to minority religious faiths and students who are non-religious and is a violation of the Establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which provides for the separation of church and state.

While a student originally composed the Code of Honor in 1927, it was not displayed prominently at McKinley High School until the 1990’s. Several years ago, school officials began actively promoting the 1927 Code of Honor as the school’s official code of honor. It was printed on large yellow posters, placed in the school handbook, set to music, prominently displayed in classrooms and recited aloud at graduation ceremonies and student assemblies.

The terms of today’s court-approved settlement — also known as a consent decree — are as follows:

  • A plaque made in 1927 and which contains the Code of Honor may remain in the Hall of Honor along with other school artifacts, as long as it is not distinguished through lighting, placement, or other means.
  • Other than the plaque, all posters, flyers, and other items containing the 1927 Code of Honor will be immediately and permanently removed from school premises.
  • The 1927 Code of Honor will be immediately and permanently removed from the school website.
  • Commencing in school year 2003-2004, the 1927 Code of Honor will not be printed in the McKinley school planner, handbook, or other materials.
  • School officials will not support, endorse, or encourage the recitation or singing of the 1927 Code of Honor at official school functions, including graduation ceremonies.
  • The right of students to recite the 1927 Code of Honor on their own shall not be restricted.
  • The 1927 Code of Honor will not be endorsed or promoted by school officials as the official or unofficial school code of honor or be promoted or reproduced in official school publications, except in reports that make historical reference to the 1927 code.

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