Signs of the times

National | California school district fights Ten Commandments sign

Issue: "Peretti on publishing," Oct. 25, 1997

How far is a California school district willing to go to shield its students (and parents and baseball fans) from the Ten Commandments? A businessman in Downey (near Los Angeles) says he'll match the district's efforts and will fight as long as it takes to get his sign re-posted.

Edward DiLoreto, the 83-year-old owner of an engineering firm, was approached by the Downey High School baseball booster club in 1995. The boosters were selling ad space along the outfield fence. Coca-Cola had bought space, as had some local businesses. Mr. DiLoreto wrote out a $400 check and submitted his sign. It contained 10 "Rules to Live By," also known as the Ten Commandments. That was nothing new; he'd used the "Rules" in his ads in Downey High School football programs and in the yearbook.

But this time, school-district officials balked.

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First, officials stalled; they said they feared allowing the sign would be unconstitutional. Eventually, the state attorney general issued an opinion saying the sign was legal. "If a school district sells commercial advertising space on a fence surrounding its high school baseball field, it may not refuse to accept an otherwise appropriate advertisement which contains the Ten Commandments and clearly identifies the advertising party," attorney general Dan Lungren concluded, nine months after Mr. DiLoreto paid for the sign.

Next, the district cited potential lawsuits from the ACLU or offended parents, but no one came forward. And even if someone had come forward, Mr. DiLoreto offered to hire three attorneys to defend the district. (Later, in fact, an ACLU attorney told district officials that if they rejected Mr. DiLoreto's sign, Mr. DiLoreto could sue and probably win.)

Still, the district removed all the signs from the outfield, rather than suffer the children to see the Ten Commandments.

"We are in existence to educate, not to get involved in religious demands," the school district's lawyer told the Los Angeles Times. "I can think of a lot of different entities that would like to come in and push their messages on kids. We felt the interests of the district were not being served."

Mr. DiLoreto did file suit. "They violated my civil rights, my freedom of speech, all those bad things," says the businessman. "They messed with the wrong person. They thought I would just go away. I won't. This is important."

Since then, two courts have denied the district's request to throw out the suit. One court denied Mr. DiLoreto's request for punitive damages, but it upheld his right to sue to get the sign re-posted.

The district is now grousing about the cost of the legal action. "Any money we have to spend comes out of the general fund, and it can't be spent on education," said Downey Superintendent Ed Sussman. "This is going to be a long case, and will probably go all the way to the Supreme Court."

It has become something of a public-relations war; district officials have tried to portray themselves as victims of a zealot who doesn't care that he's taking money from kids. Mr. DiLoreto responded by donating $2,000-the revenues the baseball team would have garnered from all the signs-and he encouraged other businesses to donate. But he won't back down.

Backing down is the problem in America today, he says. "We wonder why the kids become criminals, when we won't let them even see the Ten Commandments. What's wrong with advocating morals? But out of fear of advocating a religion, we have stopped advocating morality."

The solution to the district's problem is simple, adds Mr. DiLoreto: Put up the sign. So far, the community seems to agree with him. "When they came to me, asking for money for an ad, I paid them, gave them the ad, and that should have been the end of it," he says. "This is their own doing."

Right now, the case is in the deposition phase and is scheduled for state court in December. One result of the tempest has been the formation of a political group calling itself Congress for American Principles, "Protecting American Principles based on the Ten Commandments." The advisory board includes Carl Karchner, owner of the Carl's Jr. restaurant chain, and Stephen Knott, owner of Knott's Berry Farm. Mr. DiLoreto and CAP have been joined by the Individual Rights Foundation in the legal action.


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