Lawsuits explore religion, freedom of expression

Administrators often afraid of religious speech, advocates say

Several recent court cases involving religious speech in public schools show that school administrators are overly sensitive to religious speech and do not have proper knowledge of the law, advocates say.

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

Curry, then a fifth-grade student, was given an assignment to make a product to sell during a school project, called "Classroom City," which was intended to teach students civics through marketing, literature and government. With the help of his parents Curry made a candy cane-like ornament and attached a note explaining the religious meaning of the candy cane. Part of the note read, "The stripes: remind us of Jesus' suffering — his crown of thorns, the wounds in his hands and feet; and the cross on which he died."

School administrators said the product was unacceptable because the attached message referred to Jesus and that Classroom City was considered "instructional time."

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, said the law allows students to share their religious views in classroom assignments as long as it meets the teacher's criteria. Jeff Shafer, Curry's lawyer, said Curry simply complied with the guidelines of the assignment and made a creative product. School Principal Irene Hensinger said Curry could sell the ornament with the religious note outside in the parking lot after school, but not in Classroom City. Curry chose not to sell the product outside.The judge said that Classroom City was a school project, but it still resembled a "limited public forum" for free speech, and ruled that Curry was well within his right to sell a religious product. 

"Student religious speech is protected to the same extent as any other kind of speech," said Shafer, also a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona group that advocates for religious freedom. "A school's restriction on religious expression is not only unlawful, but it is oppressive.'Shafer also said censorship of religious speech is often a 'product of ignorance."

The judge also granted qualified immunity to Hensinger, which would prevent Curry from taking further legal action against her.In October, the Curry family decided to appeal the judge's qualified immunity ruling. Shafer said the court made an "error in its qualified immunity determination." 

The Alliance Defense Fund also recently won a First Amendment case that involved an elementary school student who was prohibited by her school from singing the popular Christian song "Awesome God" during a school-sponsored talent show. School administrators said the song was "overtly religious" and of a "proselytizing nature." 

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

School administrators also said they did not allow the student to sing the song to avoid violation of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which requires the separation of the 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 other student's — individual performance or speech."

The required separation of church and state is a defense often mistakenly used by schools in freedom of religion cases, Shafer said. 

"It is a worn-out, misused and ambiguous phrase," Shafer said. "Censorship of a student's religious speech is an issue of either ignorance of the law or intentional suppression of speech that the school officials oppose."

Haynes also said school administrators need to educate themselves on the establishment clause and its appropriate application. John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based non-profit civil liberties group, said all too often school administrators are ignorant to the law and a student's rights. 

"The truth is teachers just don't know the law and that may hinder a student's free speech," Whitehead said. 

The Rutherford Institute is representing seventh-grade student Amber Mangum in a lawsuit against a Maryland School District after the school's vice principal allegedly threatened to suspend Mangum for reading her bible during the lunch hour. Mangum's school, Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School, has a policy that states students may engage in activities that "do not cause disruption" during "non-instructional" time, which includes the lunch hour. 

The policy says that 'students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray before tests to the same extent they may engage in comparable, non-disruptive activities.'But student-initiated religious speech is generally not problematic, said Lisa Soronen, staff attorney for the National School Boards Association, adding that it is a "matter of separation of church and state." 

When school officials themselves express religious viewpoints, or coerce it from students, is when the conflicts arise. Jeremy Leaming, spokesperson for the Americans United for Separation of Church and State organization, said that student-volunteered religious speech in public schools is protect by the First Amendment but that right is not absolute.

"Public school officials have the duty to ensure that a secular education is met," Leaming said. "They have to be cognizant of the curriculum and make sure not to advocate one religion over another."

But Whitehead said the issue of the separation of church and state should not appear in the classroom unless a teacher is advocating certain religious views or telling the students that they are all 'going to hell.

"If a student initiates religious dialogue, then it is entitled to First Amendment protection," Whitehead said. 

"Free speech is a citizen speaking on matters of private concerns with no backing from the government," Whitehead said. "If the government or school administrators are involved then the establishment clause comes into play."

Whitehead said he believes a school's restriction on religious speech is a hamper to a student's preparation for participation in American society.

"You can't have diversity and freedom in the classroom if everybody is saying the same thing," Whitehead said.

Michigan, reports, Saginaw School District, Winter 2006-07