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Court: Pa. elementary school must allow student to distribute religious fliers for Christmas parties

ADF attorneys represent student in lawsuit against Pocono Mountain School District

Friday, Oct 21, 2011

ADF attorney sound bites:  David Cortman  |  Matt Sharp

SCRANTON, Pa. — A federal court issued an order Thursday that prohibits the Pocono Mountain School District from continuing to stop a student from distributing fliers that invite other students to church parties and other religious events. Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed suit in March on behalf of the then-5th-grade student after she was stopped from distributing fliers that invited fellow Barrett Elementary Center students to a Christmas party at her church. The court also halted enforcement of district policies that prohibit any student speech considered to be promoting Christianity.

“Christian students have positive messages to share with other students that are not only protected by the Constitution, but that should be welcomed in public schools,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. “The court was right to stop this unconstitutional ban on Christmas party invitations as our lawsuit moves forward.”

“The fliers were banned simply because the party was being held at a church while fliers for Halloween parties and promotional events for businesses and other community groups went unopposed,” added ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Matt Sharp. “If the party had been held at a pizza parlor, the district would have approved the flier, and that just doesn’t pass constitutional muster.”

The court found that “the Superintendent’s elusive criteria for determining which materials could be distributed is simply too broad and vague to be considered reasonable” and are “ripe for abuse.”

In early December, the 5th-grade Christian student was stopped from handing out invitations to classmates during non-instructional time before class. The Christmas party flier from the student’s church that invited kindergarteners through 6th-graders read, “Admission and all activities are free! Face Painting, Ping Pong, Foosball, Cup-Stacking, Games, Prizes, Puppets, Music, Snacks, and more!”

The original district policies prohibited any student expression, written or verbal, that promotes a specific religious point of view. The policies also gave school officials subjective discretion as to which fliers to permit.

Consequently, the district excluded the fliers inviting students to the free Christmas party, while indiscriminately allowing other students to distribute invitations to birthday parties, Halloween celebrations, and Valentine’s dances. The district has also permitted community groups and businesses to distribute ads for a basketball league, bowling club, and community classes through a take-home flier forum and a literature distribution table in the school, which the Christian student will now be allowed to use due to the court’s order.

Even though the district revised its policies, the court found that the revisions were insufficient to eliminate violations of the constitutional rights of students protected by the First Amendment.

Randall Wenger, chief counsel of the Harrisburg-based Independence Law Center and one of nearly 2,100 attorneys in the ADF alliance, is serving as co-counsel in the suit, K.A. v. Pocono Mountain School District.

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.