Appeals case up re: proselytizing in school

The story is out of Plano, Texas, where Jonathan Morgan who, when 8, was not allowed to give religious-themed treats to his classmates at their Winter party. They were pens shaped like candy canes with some sort of scripture stamped on them. (I don’t know why people insist on thinking the candy cane was designed as a Jesus message. Snopes cleared that up years ago.) Eight years later, this case, and other similar ones, are up in Appeals court and Charisma reports on it as the students’ lawyers see it.

“The school officials are asking the court to change the law to actually allow religious discrimination for the first time in American law,” says Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of Liberty Institute, which represents several students and their parents in the case. “The judges were very attentive and active today, and we are hopeful they will reject this radical request from the school officials.

“I think it was pretty clear right off the bat that a number of judges were very disturbed by arguments made by the school district’s lawyers,” Shackelford adds.

According to Charles Bundren, an affiliate attorney with the Liberty Institute,

“The big surprise today in the courtroom is that now the defendants are trying to shift their argument by throwing Plano Independent School District and their representation under the bus, and that school officials have no responsibility to know that they cannot engage in religious discrimination against student speech,”

The Christian Institute mentions that the case includes a few other incidents of schools getting in the way of supposed juvenile proselytizing: kids who weren’t allowed to put “Merry Christmas” on cards headed to US soldiers, and a girl who tried to pass out tickets to a religious play. (More about various “They also report on the fact that all 17 judges of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals are hearing this case, which is apparently unusual and “something reserved for cases of national impact.” They’re probably right.

Which is why I find it curious that this story is only found on Christian news sites, not much in any mainstream or secular sources. One article by Hans von Spakovsky provided quite a bit of information about the case for the National Review and defends the kids’ rights to be overtly religious on (public?) school grounds.

Since these events, the school district and the principals have only compounded their errors. Rather than acknowledge that they made a mistake, apologize, and change their discriminatory policies, they have spent over a million taxpayer dollars fighting this lawsuit all the way up to the federal appeals court. In fact, they claim that they did nothing wrong and should be granted “qualified immunity” because “the First Amendment does not apply to elementary school students” and the “Constitution does not prohibit viewpoint discrimination against religious speech in elementary schools.” And these are the people teaching civics to our children!

Another is from Dallas Morning News but focuses more attention on the history of Liberty Institute and its overall goals in that state and across the country.

In recent years, Liberty has moved to extend its reach and has tapped into the growing field of Christian legal advocacy. It has become involved in national conservative causes from a Mojave Desert cross to the National Day of Prayer. Along the way, the nonprofit’s annual budget has quadrupled to more $2 million. It has merged with its parent policy organization endorsed by evangelist James Dobson, opened an Austin office and relocated its headquarters to a building for Christian ministries.

“A lot of people say that it’s about time that somebody is actually out there to make sure and hold us back to the Constitution and the principles upon which the country was based,” said Liberty’s president, Kelly J. Shackelford, who says the group relies on 20 full-time staffers and hundreds of volunteer lawyers across the country.

Another Charisma article about this quotes Hiram Sasser, one of the main attorneys on the students’ side.

“If we lose, it will be a massive change in the law authorizing school officials to intentionally discriminate against students who say something religious, even in their free time when they’re not bothering or disturbing anybody.”

This case is bringing up not only what rights elementary school children have, but also people with special needs. According to Sasser, the Association of Retarded Citizens is concerned for its members who have the IQ of an elementary school child.

Liberty Institute is asking for prayers that the judges would rule in their favor—which means the law would stay the same—and the Plano school district would not have the right to censor children’s speech because of its religious nature.

What if they are disturbing or bothering somebody? What about Jewish kids, or Muslim kids or atheist kids who’d rather not have to hear all about how great Jesus is and how they all should love Jesus? Public school is not the place to sell religion. If kids want to preach and pester and bribe potential converts after school hours, they’re welcome to it. During school they should avoid the urge to promote their faith, plain and simple.

Sadly, it’ll never be that plain and simple, not if groups like Liberty Institute insist on getting involved.

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