A federal appeals court ruled against two school principals in Plano, Texas, who prohibited students from handing out candy cane pens and other materials that contained short Christian messages.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday rejected the school officials' motion to dismiss the case and ruled that they violated the students' constitutional rights.
"This should send a strong message to school officials all over the country that if you engage in these kinds of violations against children that you're going to be held liable," said Kelly Shackelford, president of Liberty Institute, which represents the families. "Not just the school district will be on the hook."
Though Principals Lynn Swanson and Jackie Bomchill or Thomas and Rasor Elementary Schools contended that First Amendment freedom of speech protection has never been extended to the distribution of non-curricular materials in public elementary schools, the court ruled: "They are wrong."
The Supreme Court has long recognized that elementary school students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate, the appeals court pointed out.
The principals had "fair warning that the suppression of student-to-student distribution of literature on the basis of religious viewpoint is unlawful under the First Amendment with respect to elementary school students," the court stated in its opinion.
Families of several students filed a lawsuit, claiming that the school officials have in the past and continue in the present to ban the distribution of religious messages on school grounds. They accused the principals of religious viewpoint discrimination, a violation of "clearly established law."
The case dates back to a winter break party in December 2001 at Thomas Elementary School. Michaela Wade passed out goodie bags to her classmates, which contained, among other items, a pencil inscribed with "Jesus is the Reason for the Season." School officials searched the gift bags and upon discovering the pencils, they confiscated and banned them from school property.
At a 2003 winter break party, third-grader Jonathan Morgan wanted to give his classmates gift bags containing candy-cane shaped pens and a card that explained the Christian origin of candy canes. Before the party, his parents met with Principal Swanson to discuss the bags and how students and parents were being interrogated over religious messages in goodie bags.
Swanson told the parents that school officials would continue to confiscate and ban any gifts of a religious nature and further emphasized that students were also forbidden from using the term "Christmas" in conjunction with any school activity.
Later in January 2004, Stephanie Versher gave out free tickets to a Christian drama during non-curriculum times at school. Rasor Elementary Principal Bomchill, however, instructed Stephanie's teacher to stop her from handing out the tickets and to confiscate ones that were already distributed.
Stephanie was also prevented from distributing pencils that were inscribed with "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so" outside the school building after school. The young student was threatened with expulsion for distributing religious materials.
In December, the appeals court upheld the Plano ISD district's policy regulating when students can distribute religious materials. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal of that case. This week's ruling does not affect the December decision.
The principals, meanwhile, are considering an appeal of this week's free speech ruling.