Lawsuits explore religion, freedom of expression

Several recent court casesinvolving religious speech in public schools show that school administrators areoverly sensitive to religious speech and do not have proper knowledge of thelaw, advocates say.

In September, a federal court ruled the that SaginawSchool District in Michigan had violated the First Amendment rights of HadleyElementary School student Joel Curry when the school did not allow him to handout an ornament with a religious message attached.

Curry, then afifth-grade student, was given an assignment to make a product to sell during aschool project, called “Classroom City,” which was intended to teachstudents civics through marketing, literature and government. With thehelp of his parents Curry made a candy cane-like ornament and attached a noteexplaining the religious meaning of the candy cane. Part of the note read, “The stripes: remind us of Jesus’ suffering — his crown ofthorns, the wounds in his hands and feet; and the cross on which hedied.”

School administrators said the product was unacceptablebecause the attached message referred to Jesus and that Classroom City wasconsidered “instructional time.”

Charles Haynes, a seniorscholar at the First Amendment Center, said the law allows students to sharetheir religious views in classroom assignments as long as it meets theteacher’s criteria. Jeff Shafer, Curry’s lawyer, said Currysimply complied with the guidelines of the assignment and made a creativeproduct. School Principal Irene Hensinger said Curry could sell theornament with the religious note outside in the parking lot after school, butnot in Classroom City. Curry chose not to sell the product outside.Thejudge said that Classroom City was a school project, but it still resembled a “limited public forum” for free speech, and ruled that Curry waswell within his right to sell a religious product. 

“Studentreligious speech is protected to the same extent as any other kind ofspeech,” said Shafer, also a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, anArizona group that advocates for religious freedom. “A school’srestriction on religious expression is not only unlawful, but it isoppressive.’Shafer also said censorship of religious speech isoften a ‘product of ignorance.”

The judge also grantedqualified immunity to Hensinger, which would prevent Curry from taking furtherlegal action against her.In October, the Curry family decided to appealthe judge’s qualified immunity ruling. Shafer said the court made an “error in its qualified immunity determination.” 

TheAlliance Defense Fund also recently won a First Amendment case that involved anelementary school student who was prohibited by her school from singing thepopular Christian song “Awesome God” during a school-sponsoredtalent show. School administrators said the song was “overtlyreligious” and of a “proselytizing nature.” 

Shafer,also one of the lawyers in that case, said the student had the right to sing thegospel song during a school talent show because the school also created a “limited public forum.” 

School administrators also said theydid not allow the student to sing the song to avoid violation of theestablishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which requires the separation ofthe church and state.

The court did not agree, stating in the order that “even if the school sponsored and promoted the talent show as an event,the school did not promote plaintiff’s — or any otherstudent’s — individual performance or speech.”

Therequired separation of church and state is a defense often mistakenly used byschools in freedom of religion cases, Shafer said. 

“It is aworn-out, misused and ambiguous phrase,” Shafer said. “Censorship ofa student’s religious speech is an issue of either ignorance of the law orintentional suppression of speech that the school officialsoppose.”

Haynes also said school administrators need to educatethemselves on the establishment clause and its appropriate application.John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-basednon-profit civil liberties group, said all too often school administrators areignorant to the law and a student’s rights. 

“The truth isteachers just don’t know the law and that may hinder a student’sfree speech,” Whitehead said. 

The Rutherford Institute isrepresenting seventh-grade student Amber Mangum in a lawsuit against a MarylandSchool District after the school’s vice principal allegedly threatened tosuspend Mangum for reading her bible during the lunch hour.Mangum’s school, Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School, has a policythat states students may engage in activities that “do not causedisruption” during “non-instructional” time, which includesthe lunch hour. 

The policy says that ‘students may read theirBibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray before tests to thesame extent they may engage in comparable, non-disruptiveactivities.’But student-initiated religious speech is generallynot problematic, said Lisa Soronen, staff attorney for the National SchoolBoards Association, adding that it is a “matter of separation of churchand state.” 

When school officials themselves express religiousviewpoints, or coerce it from students, is when the conflicts arise.Jeremy Leaming, spokesperson for the Americans United for Separation ofChurch and State organization, said that student-volunteered religious speech inpublic schools is protect by the First Amendment but that right is notabsolute.

“Public school officials have the duty to ensure that asecular education is met,” Leaming said. “They have to be cognizantof the curriculum and make sure not to advocate one religion overanother.”

But Whitehead said the issue of the separation of churchand state should not appear in the classroom unless a teacher is advocatingcertain religious views or telling the students that they are all ‘goingto hell.

“If a student initiates religious dialogue, then it isentitled to First Amendment protection,” Whitehead said. 

“Freespeech is a citizen speaking on matters of private concerns with no backing fromthe government,” Whitehead said. “If the government or schooladministrators are involved then the establishment clause comes intoplay.”

Whitehead said he believes a school’s restriction onreligious speech is a hamper to a student’s preparation for participationin American society.

“You can’t have diversity and freedom inthe classroom if everybody is saying the same thing,” Whitehead said.