SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – The mayor of Sioux Falls said the city will not paint over religious messages that parochial school students put on city-owned snow plow blades unless it is legally forced to do so.

Mayor Mike Huether told KELO-AM radio on Tuesday that the city is holding firm in its position: “Unless, I guess, I get some Supreme Court case (that) says that I have to.”

Students at Lutheran High School and Sioux Falls Lutheran School painted the plow blades as part of the city’s Paint the Plows program. One blade includes the words “Jesus Christ” and the other “Happy Birthday Jesus.”

The Siouxland Freethinkers complained to the city, saying the religious artwork on publicly owned vehicles violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Lutheran High School Principal Derek Bult told the Argus Leader ( ) that he was contacted by a city official last week and told to have students repaint the plow blades, or city staffers would. He said he was so pleased with the mayor’s comments Tuesday that he organized an afternoon assembly to surprise students.

“I know it was really hard to take, especially (for) those students who worked on that plow and had a hard time understanding why” it became an issue, Bult said.

City Attorney David Pfeifle said officials are still doing a “delicate balancing test” between competing clauses within the First Amendment, including free speech, freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

“Our goal is to not paint them over, and we’re exploring every option,” he said.

Siouxland Freethinkers President Amanda Novotny said the group will consult with the nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation about how to proceed.