NEW YORK — The Liverpool Central School District has decided not to appeal a decision in which a federal judge ruled that students in elementary schools have the right to distribute fliers with religious messages to peers, said Frank Williams, attorney for the district.
The school was in violation of the First Amendment when it refused to allow a fourth-grader at Nate Perry Elementary to hand out to classmates a “personal statement,” in which she explained how Jesus Christ “saved her life,” according to a 46-page decision issued in March.
Mathew Staver, the attorney from the religious rights group Liberty Counsel representing the student, identified as Michaela Bloodgood in area media reports, said this ruling affects students significantly because it says that from kindergarten on, students have First Amendment rights.
“[Students] are not wards of the state deprived of all constitutional rights,” he said. “They are citizens; they enjoy all the same rights that other citizens have. One of those is freedom of speech.”
Michaela, now in sixth grade, filed a lawsuit via her mother, Nicole Bloodgood, in 2004 against the school district after three failed attempts to obtain permission from the superintendent to hand out the flier to friends during “non-instructional time,” such as on the bus, before school, lunch, recess and after school. The flier, about the size of a greeting card, started out: “Hi! I am Michaela and I would like to tell you about my life and how Jesus Christ gave me a new one.”
Attorneys for Michaela noted that she had received literature from other students at school, including fliers concerning a YMCA basketball camp, Syracuse Children’s Theater promotion of the show “Dragon Slayers” and the Camp Fire USA’s summer camps.
Liverpool officials said they feared there was “a substantial probability” that parents and students might misunderstand Michaela’s flier and assume the district endorsed the religious statements, according to the decision.
The district based its prohibition on the “fear or apprehension of disturbance, which is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression,” according to the decision.
“The court cannot say the danger that children would misperceive the endorsement of religion is any greater than the danger that they would perceive a hostility toward religion as a result of the district’s denial,” the decision says.
By Jenny Redden, SPLC staff writer
M.B. v. Liverpool Central Sch. Dist., No. 04-1255, 2007 WL 96328 (N.D.N.Y. March 30, 2007).