Judge rules traditional tribal values can stay in Ketchikan schools

a Southeast tribal values poster
An easel displays the 14 traditional tribal values in Ketchikan Superior Court on Tuesday. (KRBD/Raegan Miller)

After a two-day trial, a Ketchikan Superior Court judge ruled that a list of 14 traditional tribal values can keep their place in Ketchikan schools. The decision comes less than a week after the trial’s end.

The values were created years ago by Southeast Native leaders, and include items like “hold each other up” and “speak with care.” But parents Justin Breese and Rebecca King sued the school district, alleging that one of the values, “reverence for our creator,” was a religious statement that violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. 

They asked for the posters to be taken down from common areas and instead be incorporated into guided lessons. The parents also wanted the values removed from a behavior reward system at Ketchikan Charter School, where King teaches kindergarten.

In the written decision, Judge Katherine Lybrand said that the plaintiffs didn’t prove the statement was religious. Lybrand said that, in order to violate the Establishment Clause, the posters would have to be forcing students into believing a certain way. She said that fact was not proven at the trial.

And, Lybrand ruled, even if it was religious, it still wouldn’t be a violation of the clause, because the display of the posters isn’t forcing a certain behavior. 

“The mere display of the posters around the District’s schools does not foster excessive entanglement or coerce students to believe a certain thing (and in fact there was no testimony that any student has felt coerced in any way),” Lybrand wrote in her decision.

Lybrand echoed testimony from expert witnesses saying the posters were hung to encourage cultural awareness, not a particular behavior. 

“The posting of the Southeast Traditional Tribal Values poster has a secular purpose: to promote cross-cultural understanding, place-based learning and strong relationships with the District’s Indigenous student population,” Lybrand wrote.

Lybrand also wrote that the “reverence for our creator,” value wasn’t a required part of the Ketchikan Charter School program and teachers aren’t required to hang the posters in their classrooms. On the first day of the trial, Ketchikan Charter School Principal Kayla Livingston testified that the value “reverence for our creator” hadn’t been used as a “value of the week” or “value of the month” at the school.

Additionally, Lybrand noted that the posting of the value was “more akin to reciting the pledge of allegiance than the posting of the Ten Commandments.”

“Its posting is more akin to reciting the pledge of allegiance than the posting of the Ten Commandments because the poster as a whole demonstrates that its purpose is to promote place-based learning and cross-cultural understanding, not to promote a religious belief,” Lybrand wrote in the court document.

Native leaders in Ketchikan and around Southeast applauded the decision on social media, along with Ketchikan’s tribe.

Plaintiff Rebecca King said she did not have a comment regarding the decision, but that, as parents, they weren’t law experts and received an answer through the legal process. 

KRBD could not reach a representative from the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District via phone. Superintendent Michael Robbins later sent a message to KRBD stating, “we are happy with the verdict.” 

Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.

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