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FlierA Clark Middle School student wanted to distribute this flier at school, but was told it was against school policy. Now the district is facing a federal lawsuit filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group.
A seventh-grader at Clark Middle School, Bonner Springs, is challenging the school’s ban on distributing religious fliers promoting a “See You at the Pole” prayer event.
The seventh-grader, a Kansas City, Kan., resident known only by initials in a lawsuit filed Nov. 26 in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., tried to hand out fliers and put up a poster at school but was told by a counselor she couldn’t because it would violate the separation of church and state, according to the lawsuit filed by attorneys for Alliance Defending Freedom. The parent’s name is also on the lawsuit. The organization is a conservative Christian group in Arizona that has filed several lawsuits nationally on religious freedom.
The lawsuit states that “the district’s censorship of plaintiff’s religious speech, and the policy on which that censorship was based, violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.”
Bonner Springs Superintendent Dan Brungardt said he didn’t know very much about the situation because the matter was not brought to the attention of the school administration or the superintendent’s office. It’s very difficult to know what it was about, he said. He said the lawsuit might be served to the district sometime Tuesday.
In a message sent to district patrons, Brungardt said that normally issues are handled at the building level or at the superintendent's level, and that it was unfortunate that the first time this particular issue was brought forward was at the federal court. Brungardt stated that because of privacy concerns involving the student, the district would not engage in a public discussion of the details of the situation, but it would respond to the lawsuit in an appropriate way.
In his message to parents, he added that students in the Bonner Springs-Edwardsville district “have the right to use religious materials in assignments, reports or other classroom activities. Generally speaking, students have the right to express their religious beliefs in assignments if germane to the assignment. Teachers cannot require students to modify, include or excise religious views in their assignments, and must judge assignments by academic achievement. Religious or anti-religious remarks that are made in the ordinary course of classroom discussion or student presentations are acceptable.”
The fliers that the student wanted to distribute had Bible verses on them, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit points out that a number of other types of fliers and materials have been allowed to be posted at the school. It cites two previous fliers that were allowed, including one hand-made poster of a tombstone with the words “RIP” involving the KU-K-State sports rivalry, and another student-made poster that showed rap artist Lil’ Wayne and the phrase, “Good Kush and Alcohol.”
“We celebrate the gangster culture, but we can’t celebrate religious beliefs,” said Jeremy Tedesco, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom. “Not exactly the most positive of messages are permitted without any problem, but if students want to invite others to pray, they get shut out. That’s a problem, a constitutional problem, and needs to be fixed.”
Tedesco said the problem was with the school board’s policy flatly banning students from distributing religious materials at school. He said it violates the First Amendment and students’ other constitutional rights, and that the Alliance Defending Freedom was asking for an immediate change to this policy.
“The courts have repeatedly affirmed the right of students to distribute religious information at school during noninstructional time,” Tedesco said.
He said his organization has won other similar cases, including one recent case in the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals affirming students’ rights. Some school districts around the nation have policies that do not allow students to distribute religious information because in the past, other organizations have threatened to sue school districts if they allowed religious speech at public schools.
“The restrictions on religious speech, in my view, are a product of a misunderstanding of the law,” Tedesco said. “Schools think they have to restrict religious speech at school because of a misunderstanding of the First Amendment. When they do so, they also violate the rights of students.”