When 15-year-old Ryan Green wore his new Star of David necklace to the first day of class at Harrison Central High School in Gulfport, Miss., it drew the attention of wary school officials.
The school superintendent, backed by the entire local school board barred the carrot-topped, freckle-faced boy from wearing the silver pendant, citing a school policy that prohibits students from wearing gang symbols.
The case swiftly gained national attention, spurring a federal lawsuit, charges of anti-Semitism and raising new questions about religious freedom in public schools.
After mounting public pressure, the school board Monday night reversed its unanimous decision of the previous week, and unanimously voted to exempt religious symbols from its anti-gang policy.
“After consideration and a lot of soul searching, I think it’s justifiable that [Ryan] and any other student get to express their religion,” board member T.J. Harder said Monday.
But that doesn’t mean the federal lawsuit will automatically be dropped, says David Ingebretson, executive of the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the complaint against the Harrison County School Board in federal district court in Biloxi last Friday.
Ingebretson, who said the board’s first decision to bar the Jewish star was anti-Semitic, told The Jewish Week the future of the lawsuit rests with the Green family.
“It’s not clear exactly what [the board] decided,” he said. “Last week they clearly said gang symbols would be prohibited. Now the board’s decision means that students can wear the Star of David to school and the board will address the policy concerning gang symbols in the next 30 days.
“It’s important we be certain that the school board is protecting the religious expression of its students,” he said.
But Ingebretson also declared victory for the teen who stood up for his rights.
“It’s probably the best lesson he’ll ever learn — one person standing up for the their rights.”
Initially, school board members cited the use of the six-pointed star symbol by a local gang as the basis for their decision, sparking a national furor, much bad publicity for Mississippi, and scores of e-mails to the local newspaper. The Sun-Herald serves this tourism-dependent community of about a dozen beach-front casinos, located some 60 miles south of the state capital of Jackson.
“Have we not learned anything from the Holocaust, or don’t you morons in Mississippi think that 6,000,000 people were murdered?” Deborah R. of New Jersey e-mailed the paper.
Critics also noted that the school board did not ban crosses, even though they also appear on the board’s list of prohibited symbols used by gangs, according to Marc Stern, legal director of the American Jewish Congress.
“That raises the discrimination complaint in spades,” said Stern.
“No matter what the intentions were, the effect of the policy was anti-Semitic because they singled out one religious symbol to be banned from the school,” the ACLU’s Ingebretson told The Jewish Week.
But school officials and law enforcement officers in this community argued the issue was student safety.
They noted that two main gangs operate in the Gulfport area: the Black Gangster Disciples, who use the six-pointed star as their symbol, and the Vicelords, who use a five-pointed star.
Frank Baskett, public affairs officer for the Harrison County Sheriff’s Office, said no local gang uses the cross as a symbol.
School and law enforcement officials said they feared possible violence if students wear symbols associated with gangs.
“We’re not trying to get into a religious issue at all,” Harrison County Superintendent Henry Arledge said last week when the controversy first erupted. “We’re trying to provide a safe haven for kids to come to school and get an education.”
But school and police officials appeared to disagree about the gang problem. Arledge said gangs have not been a problem in Harrison County schools in recent years, but that can change.
“From time to time, it flares up and then it goes away,” he said. Police say the area does have a gang problem, and schools must remain a neutral setting, where no gang symbols are allowed.
“Regardless of what the city and county fathers say, we do have gangs,” said Baskett of the Sheriff’s Office. “This is not a religious issue. This is a safety issue.”
Carolyn Tyler, executive director of the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Recovery Unit, said the community should not let gangs dictate what kids can and can’t wear.
“To let the evil or the gang claim and take over the power of a symbol is ridiculous,” she said. “As Christians, if it were the cross, we would never stand for that.”
The controversy began on Aug. 9 when Ryan wore his Star of David while registering for classes. A teacher suggested he put the pendant inside his shirt, but he wore it to class the following day and was ordered to remove it.
When the school board met on Aug. 16, it banned the Star of David for all students, saying it was too much like a gang symbol.
The pendant was given to Ryan two months ago by his paternal grandmother, who is Jewish, as is his father. Ryan’s mother and stepmother are Christian.
Not everyone agrees that the board’s actions were anti-Semitic.
“Based on personal meetings with both the superintendent and the president of the school board, we are confident that the controversy surrounding the wearing of religious symbols was not motivated by any anti-Semitism or discrimination,” said Louis Dorfman, president of B’nai B’rith International’s Southeast Region.
After the meeting last week, which included representatives from the Jewish community, law enforcement and the Gulfport tourism commission, the school officials agreed to review their decision.
Tom Green, Ryan’s father, declared the reversal a victory.
“We are truly joyous. As a father to a son, this is the best principle I could teach him: Stand up for your rights.”