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Parents sue to allow religious holiday messages in public schools

By Emanuella Grinberg
Court TV

Jonathan Morgan with his father Doug in their Plano, Texas, home.

(Court TV) -- Thanks to a last-minute court ruling, Jonathan Morgan was able to share the religious origin of the candy cane with his elementary-school classmates at this year's winter-break party at Thomas Elementary School in Plano, Texas.

Jonathan tried to hand out pens in the shape of candy canes with an explanation of their Christian symbolism at last year's party, but school officials said it was against district policy.

But just in time for this year's festivities, a judge granted a temporary restraining order against Plano Independent School District's policy prohibiting the distribution of items with religious messages. The U.S. Department of Justice is also investigating the case.

In an era of highly publicized court battles to secularize the holiday season in public schools, the ruling is a boon for the Morgan family and two others with children in Plano public schools.

They believe the policy directly contravenes their constitutional rights to free speech and to exercise their Catholic religion.

The three families filed suit earlier in December against the district over the distribution policy and other aspects of the treatment of Christian holidays in Plano schools.

The families want to block the district's policy, which also prohibits the use of red and green plates and napkins at the school's annual winter-break party.

The suit also addresses the school's policy of not allowing students to write Merry Christmas on cards they send to U.S. soldiers, or to hand out invitations on school property to church events.

Michaela Wade, another Thomas Elementary School student represented in the suit, brought in pencils for the 2002 winter-break party to give to her classmates with "Jesus is the reason for the season" printed on them. School officials promptly seized her gifts after seeing the religious message.

The suit claims the policy violates their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and their equal-protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

"Plaintiffs have a clearly established constitutional right to engage in the exercise of their religious faith by the dissemination of gifts and materials while at school and to engage their classmates in the discussion of religious issues," the complaint says.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Liberty Legal Institute, a Texas-based advocacy firm dedicated to protecting "religious freedoms and First Amendment rights for individuals, groups, and churches," according to their Web site.

"The government has zero right to prohibit private citizens from living out their faith and sharing it with other folks in schools," said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel for Liberty Legal.

"People shouldn't have to hide who they are. Hopefully, we can learn from one another by expressing our unique viewpoints," he said.

The subject of a federal court ruling: The pen proves mightier than school district policy.

Counsel for the school district says it is simply trying to balance the tension between two extremes.

"Some people want as much access to free speech as possible; others don't want religion endorsed in the classroom. Who's caught in the middle? The school district," said Richard Ackerman, chief counsel for Plano Independent School District.

As an example, he points to a suit last year that accused the school district of promoting the Wicca religion by offering a Harry Potter-themed party as an auction fundraiser item.

"Last year, we were sued for endorsing religion; this year, we're being sued for limiting the right to express one's religion," said Ackerman. "We're tracking a minefield, and this is not what the school district wants to be doing  we're in the business of education."

The Plano families aren't the only ones trying to bring religion back to the forefront of the holiday season.

"In the last couple of years, those who want to purge religion from Christmas and society at large have become more vocal," said Stuart Roth, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice.

Roth, a Messianic Jew, represented an Oregon schoolboy who sued his school district last year for the right to hand out Christmas cards with the same legend-of-the-candy-cane story.

The suit settled in October under the terms that students could bring in the cards but not pass them out. They could only leave them on a table for others to take.

As in the complaint filed in Texas, Roth argued that allowing a student to express a religious viewpoint in school is different from the school endorsing that opinion in favor of another, which is forbidden under the establishment clause in the Constitution.

"The separation of church and state is something educators are not properly educated about," Roth said. "Clearly, schools cannot endorse one faith over another, but there's a lot of room between the establishment clause and students singing 'Silent Night' at a holiday party."

But Ackerman says it's a difficult balance to strike. "We're trying to navigate those waters right now. If the court would tell us what we can do, we'd do it."

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