The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans has held that Plano school principals violated students’ constitutional rights when they confiscated Christian-themed materials, including candy cane pens, that students planned to hand out at school. The pencils one girl tried to distribute read, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” and the candy cane pens a student tried to pass out in December 2003 had cards attached to them that explained the Christian origin of the candies.
As reported in the Dallas Morning News, the case focused on several winter break parties from 2001 to 2004 at Thomas Elementary and Rasor Elementary. Lynn Swanson, the principal at Thomas, stopped a third-grade boy from distributing the candy cane pens with the Christian message that read, in part, “The blood Christ shed for the sins of the world.”
A month later, Jackie Bomchill at Rasor prevented a girl from handing out tickets for a Christian drama and from distributing religious-themed pencils. The boy’s parents and others whose children were prevented from handing out the materials sued the school district.
The courts have held that the constitutional rights of students are not surrendered at the school door. The courts have also held however ,that schools can however regulate activities that disrupt the educational purpose. This was most recently addressed by the Supreme Court in the Bong Hits For Jesus case in which a student, during a school sanctioned off premises event, put up a banner on a public sidewalk that read, “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”. The banner was confiscated and the student disciplined. The court found in part, that as the banner promoted illegal drug use, it did disrupt the educational mission and the speech was therefore not protected under the 1st Amendment.
In this case, we are dealing with censoring of a private exchange of a a benign religious message. It is not occurring in the classroom, at the behest of the school or in any type of school sanctioned manner. The mere fact that it occurs on school premises does not in itself inure it with this quality There is no disruption to the educational mission and no illegal activity is encouraged. The school is not sanctioning it, encouraging it or endorsing it simply by the mere fact that it is occurring.
The fact that it is an elementary school student versus a high school student in my mind is irrelevant. The message is the message regardless of age. To claim that the 1st amendment applies differently to the message in the 4th grade versus high school in my mind is the very essence of a viewpoint discrimination and the school unacceptably invading the province of the parents how they raise their children.
In the end, the 1st Amendment applies to the government’s attempt to regulate our speech including religious expression. That means that the school can not engage in conduct that endorses religious viewpoints. It does not mean that the school can muzzle a student from expressing their viewpoints in a non-school endorsed private manner. If I do not agree with the message that is my job as a parent to deal with it at home and not to try to censor the message simply because I disagree.
You can read case here.