The American Center for Law and Justice has come to the defense of a Wisconsin mother, Melissa Wolf, whose child was told by his elementary school that he couldn't distribute Christian-themed messages to his classmates as a part of Valentine's Day.
"Essentially, a student has a right to free speech unless that speech is substantially disruptive to the school ... There's no way that distributing John 3:16 is disruptive to school operations in any way, shape or form," David French, the ACLJ attorney who is representing the boy's mother, told The Christian Post on Monday.
The ACLJ is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. that focuses on defending "religious and constitutional freedoms," according to the group's website.
Second-grader Dexter Thielhelm, a student at James Madison Elementary School in Sheboygan, Wis., was sent to school on Valentine's Day with homemade valentines to pass out to his classmates. Each valentine consisted of a plastic water bottle that was filled with heart-shaped candy and came with a note that said "Jesus Loves You" and had the text of John 3:16 printed on it.
According to a letter sent from the ACLJ to the Sheboygan Area School District on Feb. 17, a teacher notified the school's principal, Matthew Driscoll, when Thielhelm began distributing the religious messages. Driscoll said the religious note had to be removed from each valentine before Thielhelm could continue giving them out.
The school district is arguing that students and parents should have been notified before any religious materials were distributed, giving them the ability to opt out of receiving any unwanted material.
"There was no prior notice to the school district or parents that a direct religious message would be presented to students," Joseph Sheehan, the district's superintendent, said in a written statement obtained by the Sheboygan Press. "Accordingly, there was no opportunity to request parent authorization for students to accept or refuse to accept the message, which forced the district to take this action."
But French says the U.S. Constitution protects the free speech rights of Thielhelm as long as he is not being disruptive, and the school is not required to give parents and students the chance to "opt out" of materials being distributed by a student.
"This is student's free speech. The opt-out provisions usually apply when you're talking about a school program, not the student's free speech," said French.
"The fact that it was religious is irrelevant to the constitutional analysis. It's not like religious speech by a private citizen is any more suspect, or is any less protected, than any other form of speech."
Sheehan told the Sheboygan Press that the school district is now working with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards to develop a new policy on the distribution of religious materials in the district's schools.
The Green Bay Press Gazette reports that Wolf has two other children who attend James Madison Elementary, and their valentines were also confiscated by the school. She also has another son who attends one of the school district's charter schools, Lake Country Academy, but was able to pass out identical valentines to his classmates without any such problems.
French says the school board needs to acknowledge Thielhelm's free speech rights, and allow the boy and other students to distribute religious messages as long as they are not being disruptive.
"People need to understand that religious speech isn't second-class speech," French asserted.