Student suspended for passing out religious material

VIRGINIA — A high school student was suspended for three days last week after passing out a religious pamphlet at school without prior approval.

The incident has prompted Fort Defiance High School administrators to revisit district policy regarding the distribution of literature.

Administrators suspended 15-year-old Samantha Weatherholtz on Sept. 14 after they said her religious leaflets caused a disturbance within the school community.

According to the public school district’s policy, students must have prior approval before they can distribute material on campus.

The student’s mother, Kelly Bussard, contacted the Christian Law Association to address the situation. The Christian Law Association is an organization based in Seminole, Fla. which provides legal assistance to “Bible-believing churches and Christians who are experiencing legal difficulty in practicing their religious faith because of governmental regulation, intrusion or prohibition of one form or another,” according to its Web site.

The organization sent a letter to the school detailing legal precedent for handing out religious pamphlets at school, said association lawyer Barbara Weller.

“Tract distribution is the same as verbal speech. If you can do one, you can do the other,” Weller said.

Bussard is working with school officials to develop a new policy to provide more clarity for students who wish to distribute materials on campus, according to an article in The News Leader, the local paper in Staunton, Va.

The material did not draw objections from school administrators because of its religious nature, which was a fear expressed by certain community members in Fort Defiance, said Augusta County School Board attorney G. Rodney Young.

“This was a time, manner and place issue,” Young said. “This was not an issue that dealt with the review of the material. There was a level of disruption caused.”

Young said school officials were worried about potential conflicts between students on different sides of the issues and safety concerns resulting from materials left in the stairwells.

Weller said the school originally told Weatherholtz the suspension was for distributing religious materials and later cited solicitation as the basis for suspension. The leaflets included a link to a Web site soliciting donations to a religious organization.

Young said the new policy would maintain free speech rights for students.

“I expect the student would seek review with a school administrator,” Young said of a potential new policy. “The administrator would approve it. It would be rare circumstances where it would not be approved. If not approved, there would be the opportunity to appeal up the chain, perhaps to the school board.”

Weatherholtz enrolled at the Spring Creek Church of the Nazarene school Sept. 26. Friends plan to hand out different fliers without the Web site at Fort Defiance High School, Weller said.

Weller said a lawsuit would not be necessary because the school was working to create a new policy.

by Kyle McCarthy, SPLC staff writer