Man sues Colorado university for denying Bible-themed donor plaque in football locker room

DENVER — A graduate of a Colorado university who wanted to cite the names of Bible verses on a donor nameplate in a football locker room sued his alma mater for rejecting the request.

Michael Lucas wanted the plaque recognizing a $2,500 donation he made to be inscribed with “Colossians 3:23” and “Micah 5:9,” but not the language from them. The Colorado School of Mines said the inclusion of the verse names would violate the separation of church and state, according a lawsuit filed in Denver federal court last week.

Lucas argues that it constitutes private speech protected by the First Amendment. The university said it is disappointed the former football player sued and disagreed with his claim that it restricted his free-speech rights.

For his donation, Lucas was getting one of 130 personalized plaques in the locker room of the school’s new athletic facility. Quotations approved for other donor nameplates included, “Give ‘Em Hell!” and “Take your whiskey clear,” according to the lawsuit.

Lucas, who played defensive nose tackle for the Mines’ Orediggers from 1998 to 2002, said the university rejected the citations because they referenced Bible books and because Colossians 3:23 includes the word “Lord.” It reads: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”

Richard Collins, a law professor at the University of Colorado, said that while public institutions have to be careful not to appear to favour one religion over another, he thinks there’s a good chance the court will see donor nameplates as private speech.

“The plaque is obviously the work of the donor, not the university,” he said. “The university just way overreacted to the content of this.”

Scott Johns, a law professor at the University of Denver, said one question the court will evaluate is whether people using the locker room would feel excluded if certain religious messages were allowed.

“At the end of the day, the school’s in a tough place,” he said.

After the dispute, Lucas still made his donation and agreed on a plaque with the quotation from Micah, instead of the name of the Bible citation itself. The nameplate now reads: “Your hand will be lifted up in triumph over your enemies, and all your foes will be destroyed.”

But Lucas agreed to the nameplate “under protest” and he wants the university to give him what he originally requested, said his attorney Natalie Decker, who works with Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian advocacy group.

“We worked with him to come to an agreement on an inscription that both reflected his intentions and was consistent with our obligations as a public university,” Karen Gilbert, a school spokeswoman, said in a statement.

She said the university believes the “speech at issue is considered government speech” because it’s permanently on its property and the school can’t favour one faith or belief over others.

“The Mines community is made up of many faiths and beliefs and we aim to foster a supportive and inclusive university environment,” Gilbert’s statement said.

The lawsuit names 10 Colorado School of Mines officials, including its former president, the current president and university trustees. Lucas is seeking attorneys’ fees if he wins, $1 from each of the school officials named in the suit, and for the university for change its policy regarding what can go on donor nameplates such as his.

“It’s absurd for them to argue that a Bible-verse reference that doesn’t even include the text of the verse is somehow inappropriate because another person might go and look up that verse and see that the word ‘Lord’ is included in that,” Decker said.

Ivan Moreno, The Associated Press