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Published: Thursday, 12/14/2006

Rossford, rock band end costly legal fight

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Robert Golden, left, Travis Montgomery, Kyle Kleeberger, Mark Montgomery, and Tim Strausbaugh were not allowed to perform as their Christian rock group, Pawn, at an anti-drug rally at Rossford High School. Supporters sued over the board's December, 2004 decision. Robert Golden, left, Travis Montgomery, Kyle Kleeberger, Mark Montgomery, and Tim Strausbaugh were not allowed to perform as their Christian rock group, Pawn, at an anti-drug rally at Rossford High School. Supporters sued over the board's December, 2004 decision.
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A costly two-year legal battle between Rossford schools and a Christian band that was not allowed to perform during an anti-drug assembly at the high school appears to be over.

The school board voted 3-1 last night to settle the lawsuit filed by the band Pawn and adopt a new policy that says future decisions about who will speak or perform at school-sponsored forums will not discriminate on the basis of religion.

Pawn and the board also agreed that the band would not perform at the school, a key demand of the band and their Christian backers, who had vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

I believe this establishes our authority as a board that we do have final say as to what goes on in our programs, and I believe it can bring healing to the community, said Brian Hughes, a board member who helped negotiate the settlement.

Board President David Kleeberger, whose son is a member of Pawn, and board member Diane McKinney also voted in favor of the agreement. Michael McAlear cast the only dissenting vote, while Joseph Minarcin, Jr., abstained.

The dispute arose out of a December, 2004, decision by Rossford Superintendent Luci Gernot to cancel a performance by Pawn out of a concern over a potential lawsuit for promoting religion in a public school.

Supporters of the band, which agreed to play secular music at the anti-drug assembly, were outraged, and the case gained national attention from organizations on both sides of the debate on whether religion has a place in public schools.

Pawn members Robert Golden, Mark and Travis Montgomery, and Timothy Strausbaugh ultimately filed suit in U.S. District Court, lost, then appealed to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

Yesterday s settlement was the result of mediation efforts between the band and school board.

Mr. Kleeberger, whose son Kyle was not a plaintiff in the suit filed in February, 2005, said he believed the settlement was very much in the school s favor.

As part of the proposed consent agreement, which still must be signed by U.S. District Judge Jack Zouhary, the board and the band agreed that:

wThe board will amend its policy regarding school-sponsored productions to say that neither the board nor any teacher or administrator may disfavor or discourage a district-sponsored or school-sponsored publication or production on an otherwise suitable topic merely because of the speaker s status or reputation for holding or advocating a particular religious belief or perspective.

• The band s legal claims against the school district, the school board, and Ms. Gernot will be dismissed.

• Judge Zouhary s July 31 decision will be vacated. That decision said Ms. Gernot s actions were warranted because of realistic and legitimate concerns over the band s Christian identity and that a realistic danger existed that the district could be perceived as endorsing a particular religion.

The board also agreed to reimburse the Rutherford Institute $2,500 for filing and other court fees associated with its representation of Pawn.

While band members had said they wanted to win the right to perform at Rossford High School, the Rev. Mark Montgomery, whose sons Mark and Travis play in the band, said he was gratified to see the board and its attorneys agree that Pawn s planned anti-drug, anti-alcohol concert would have been appropriate.

He said after two years of fighting, the board finally reviewed lyrics and other materials he had been trying to show them to prove the concert would have been secular.

This is a total victory, Mr. Montgomery said last night. The primary goal from the very beginning has always been to ensure that Christians have all the same rights and privileges as any other student or citizen when it comes to the Rossford school system.

The policies are very clear that religious people will not be disfavored, Mr. Montgomery said. This completely erases the horror of Page 9 of the judge s previous decision and our excitement is that this new policy is exactly what we have been fighting for.

Page 9 of Judge Zouhary s original order stated that the school was entitled to discriminate against Plaintiffs because of their Christian religious identity precisely because the assembly audience might associate that identity with the School, School District, and School Board.

Superintendent Gernot, who chose not to participate in the settlement talks, was in Columbus yesterday and did not attend the board meeting.

Ms. McKinney, a board member, said she believed the board s proposed new policy would ensure that such a situation does not happen again.

I think that it allows for everyone to win essentially, she said. The court did rule in the school s favor and we could have fought the appeal and spent more money, but I think both sides agreed it s for the greater good of the community.

The board racked up more than $150,000 in legal fees on the issue.

Mr. Montgomery said band members planned to pay their attorney from the Rutherford Institute $15,000 out of their own pockets.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-353-5972.



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