Parents are threatening legal action against a Southern California school district after their six-year-old son was told he could not pass out candy canes with religious messages taped to them because "Jesus is not allowed in school."
Isaiah Martinez, a six-year-old student at Merced Elementary School in West Covina, Calif., arrived to school on Dec. 13, planning to pass out candy canes with religious messages to his fellow students in celebration of the upcoming Christmas season. After the boy's teacher consulted with the school principal, he reportedly told the student that he could not pass out the religious messages because "Jesus is not allowed in school." The boy was still allowed to pass out the candy canes, but the teacher reportedly threw the religious-themed messages in the trash.
The messages, which were written on tiny slips of paper and attached to each candy cane, told of the legend of the candy cane and how it was created. The messages said that each detail of the peppermint-flavored candy is meant to represent the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ. Martinez had reportedly learned of the candy cane legend from his sister, who helped him create the messages and attach them to each holiday candy.
"I pray that this symbol will again be used to witness to the Wonder of Jesus and His Great Love that came down at Christmas and remains the ultimate and dominant force in the universe today," the message included with each candy cane reportedly read.
The Martinez family is now being represented by Robert Tyler, general counsel for Advocates for Faith & Freedom, a nonprofit group that seeks to protect religious liberty. Tyler said in a recent letter to the West Covina Unified School District that Isaiah's family demands a written apology, as well as the implementation of a school policy that protects students from experiencing "hostility" from school staff regarding religious affiliation. The proposed policy would also require teachers and other school officials to be trained on the First Amendment rights of their students at least once a year. If the school district does not respond by Jan. 13, Advocates for Faith and Freedom will be forced to take legal action, the letter concludes.
"The pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that public schools are becoming a place of hostility toward Christian and other religiously-based worldviews," Tyler said in a news release discussing Martinez's case. "It's time to push the pendulum back in the right direction where kids can experience true tolerance without religiously motivated hostility from their teachers and school officials."
Tyler added in the statement that his nonprofit group has received a surge of phone calls from parents across the country who say their students are victims of religious bullying, not by fellow students but rather by teachers and school officials.
After his parents addressed the incident with the school, Martinez was reportedly allowed to hand out the candy canes, equipped with the religious messages, days later outside of school property.
Superintendent Debra Kaplan said in a statement that the district is still in the process of investigating Martinez's claims.
"The District's overriding concern was and is to honor and respect the beliefs of all students in matters of religion. To that end, the District strives to maintain neutrality in matters of religion, and to observe students' rights of expression, in a manner that does not conflict with the rights of other students," Kaplan said. "During the holiday season, and particularly when young elementary students are involved, this can require difficult balancing."
Kaplan added that the issue is still being investigated, and the district will respond to Tyler's letter "in a manner consistent with our policies and the rights of all students of the district."
A similar incident took place in 2003, when a school principal in the Plano Independent School District in Texas prevented a third-grade student from passing out candy-cane shaped pens including a similar message detailing how the origins on the candy cane symbolize the life of Jesus Christ. Parents filed a lawsuit against the school district for violating the boy's First Amendment rights to religious freedom, and the case is still winding its way through courts.
In another recent case, a 10-year-old student at Lucy Elementary School near Nashville, Tenn. was forced to throw out her school assignment after she described God as her idol. The teacher reportedly told her she could not write about God in school, and made her take her assignment off school property. The girl's second choice of Michael Jackson as an idol was approved by the teacher. The Shelby School District has since apologized for the incident, saying the teacher and school officials had been confused about how to handle the situation.