Rules to Live By

Deborah Baxtrom November/December 1998 Baseball and advertising are two of America's most popular activities, so when California businessman Edward Di Loreto--a strong financial supporter of local schools and colleges for decades--was solicited to buy advertising space along the outfield fence of the Downey High School baseball field, he didn't hesitate to write a check. But when the 83-year-old philanthropist wanted to use his billboard space to post the Ten Commandments on public school property, he found himself ejected from the game.

"Nothing was ever mentioned about content restrictions," said Di Loreto, seated under an American flag in his office at Yale Engineering, his machine products company. "Whenever I'm asked to advertise, I always use the Ten Commandments as ad copy. I've run the exact same ad in the yearbook of the same high school more than once. There were billboards in the outfield advertising psychics and the Masons. I just wanted to give the kids rules to live by."

Di Loreto's modest attempt to post "rules to live by" for the benefit of Downey High School's 2,800 students, grades 9 through 12, has resulted in a controversial lawsuit filed in a quiet town of 97,000, two miles southeast of Los Angeles. Di Loreto is suing the school district for violation of his right to free speech and free exercise of religion.

"They violated my civil rights, my freedom of speech, all those bad things," he said. "They messed with the wrong person. They thought I would just go away. I won't. This is important."

The problem began when Downey Unified School District accepted Di Loreto's $400 check for billboard ad space--solicited by an athletics coach from the Downey High School Baseball Booster Club--to help the team buy new uniforms and gear. But when the sign was ready to be placed in the outfield, the district refused to post it, fearing that the sign could violate the separation of church and state, and the board didn't want a lawsuit. When Di Loreto objected, the school refunded him $300. Then, in an attempt to make the issue moot, all advertising billboards were removed from every public school in the Downey school district.

"All the signs came down because they were an eyesore and were becoming a nuisance," said school board member Margo Hoffer. Di Loreto believes the billboards were removed in order to avoid posting his sign. It was then that he filed suit.

"I hated to sue the school district," Di Loreto said, "but I had done everything they asked me to do. I said I would hire attorneys to represent the school if it was sued. I even got a letter, at the school board's request, from the state attorney general, Daniel Lungren, saying it was all right to put up my ad."

An official opinion from Lungren stated that "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."

The school district wasn't convinced.

"We could be sued by the Anti-Defamation League if we put his sign up," said Helen Malan-Lamb, an attorney representing the school district. "If we put his sign up, then we would have to put others up also." Opponents of Di Loreto's ad believe that while a sign featuring the Ten Commandments may appear innocuous, it could open the door for more controversial religious messages to be posted on the grounds of public schools.

According to Patrick Manshardt, Di Loreto's attorney and general counsel for the Individual Rights Foundation (which is representing Di Loreto), the school district's argument violates his client's right to free speech. "In our form of government, it is not in the power of the Downey School District to tell Mr. Di Loreto what to put on his sign," Manshardt stated. "The school district gave little or no credence to the opinion of the state attorney general. Such disregard is appalling."

When Di Loreto refused to withdraw his lawsuit, attorneys for the school district had the case moved from state to federal court. A federal court judge ruled in July that the Downey school district had violated Di Loreto's right to free speech and freedom of religion under the U.S. and California constitutions.

Nevertheless, in August the school district asked a federal judge to dismiss Di Loreto v. Downey Unified School District Board of Education. They also requested that sanctions be paid, claiming that Di Loreto and his attorneys had filed a frivolous lawsuit, but federal judge George H. King sided with Di Loreto. The judge refused to dismiss the case or to order the payment of sanctions, then he went a step further. He split the case between state and federal courts, forcing the school district to defend itself on two fronts.

"This case has become the legal equivalent of a Hydra for the school district," said Manshardt. "They thought they would be able to kill this case by trying to chop off its head at the federal level. Instead, two heads have grown back in its place--a state head and a federal head. They will now have to defend themselves twice."

That an entire school district should be running from Edward Di Loreto seems incongruous when in the company of the mild mannered, soft-spoken octogenarian. He still wears a suit and tie to work every day when he reports to his modest office in a Downey industrial park. A sign in the lobby of Yale Engineering reads, "America: Appreciate, Don't Desecrate." It hangs next to warnings about the dangers of cigarette smoking.

Offices in the same building house the Congress for American Principles (CAP), an organization started, following the suit, by Di Loreto and Evelyn Bradley, a former educator. "Mr. Di Loreto is a Catholic and I'm a Protestant," said Bradley, "but we're working together for the same goals."
CAP has attracted some of those who sympathize with Di Loreto and his lawsuit, including Carl's Jr. restaurant chain owner Carl Karcher; Stephen Knott, owner of the Southern California amusement park Knott's Berry Farm; and County of Los Angeles supervisor Michael Antonovich. Di Loreto has also received letters of support from other powerful political and religious leaders, such as Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles.

Many of Di Loreto's supporters have joined CAP because they feel his case may help further conservative Christian goals.

"We're losing Christ in the schools," Knott said. "Enough is enough. We want Christ back into the government and the schools."

Steven Green, legal director of the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, says he doubts that a billboard would have much of an impact on neighborhood youth. "The thought that just putting up some kind of sign is going to have some beneficial effect is naive," Green said. "It becomes lost in everything else. It becomes no different from general advertising."

Patrick Manshardt doesn't disagree. "There's no difference between a sign that says 'Drink Coca-Cola' and Mr. Di Loreto's sign," Manshardt said. "The price of the First Amendment is having to support the rights of people saying what you disagree with most. Ultimately, we're certain Mr. Di Loreto's right to free speech will be vindicated."

Since the school district solicited ads without restricting content, Green believes the courts will ultimately have to side with Di Loreto. "Ten to one they can't keep the church, or whoever, from posting this," Green said, but he does think the precedent could "raise some real problems." What if someone wanted to post an ad saying something disparaging about a mainstream religious organization? Or what if the Church of Satan wanted to put up a sign in a high school outfield? Green asked, "Where do you draw the line?"

Di Loreto has little patience for such speculation, insisting the line can be drawn through plain common sense. For him the issue is a simple one. "The bottom line is, they came here and sold me something, then they violated the deal," said Di Loreto, who has six children and 15 grandchildren. "This is more important than me, and we're not talking about money. We're talking about our youth. I'm not trying to sell religion, but if young people would obey those rules, we wouldn't need any laws."

An April of this year, at the state level, Superior Court judge Thomas L. McKnew laid down the law, at least his under-standing of it, and ruled against Di Loreto. Saying the sign would have violated the establishment clause (his ruling doesn't impact the suit that is being heard in federal court), he cited Stone V. Graham, a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down the posting of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky classroom.

"I clearly believe," McKnew stated, "that to advertize on publc property with the Ten Commandments that have their origins in Judeo-Christian religion would be against the establishment clause of the federal and state constitutions. ..."

That ruling, though, is somewhat problematic, especially using Stone v. Graham as a precedent, in which there was clear cut government endorsement, as opposed to Di Loreto's situation, in which he was seeking merely to advertize where others were as well.

According to Manshardt, the issue here is free speech, not government endorsement. "In this case," he said, "the ballfield fence has a secular purpose. The purpose was to raise money for the school. There's no difference between whether it's the Ten Commandments, a Coca-Cola sign, or a sign for an Italian restaurant."

The judge's ruling isn't the end of the matter, not by a long shot, not with someone of Edward Di Loreto's character (he's appealing the decision), especially when he sees the issue in such stark moral terms.

"If the kids see those words every day," he says about the Ten Commandments, "maybe they'll sink in."

Deborah Baxtrom is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.


Side Bar
For Peace in Our Day



Ed and Jill Di Loreto Family Trust


Whose Version

However questionable Judge McKnew's decision, which is likely (and ought) to be overturned, Edward Di Loreto's sign does in and of itself raise an interesting question regarding the issue of religion in the public square, and why, in the end, the further government stays away from religion, in principle, the better. And that's because there is such little agreement on the issue of religion itself.

Take Di Loreto's sign. The Ten Commandments. What can get more basic than that? There's just one problem. He's giving only one version of the Ten Commandments, the one that appears in Catholic catechisms. Mostly in response to the challenge of the Reformation, the catechized version of God's law removed the commandment against idolatry from the list, and in order to keep the Ten Commandments at ten, divided the tenth into two. In short, the version of the Ten Commandments he wants posted is not the original, as appears in the Bible.

Of course, because it was just an advertisement, and basically private speech, Di Loreto had the right to use whichever version he wanted. And though this case isn't purely an establishment clause issue, it just goes to show the genius of keeping church and state as separate as possible. Who wants the government in the business of enforcing religion, when Christians can't even agree on something as basic as the Ten Commandments themselves?

Article Author: Deborah Baxtrom