Two Plano school principals violated students’ constitutional rights if they confiscated Christian-themed materials, including candy cane pens, that students planned to hand out at school, an appeals court has said.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled Wednesday that the principals could be held liable for taking away the items. The principals had argued that the First Amendment doesn’t extend to students distributing noncurricular items at school.
“They are wrong,” the judges wrote.
The principals “had fair warning that the suppression of student-to-student distribution of literature on the basis of religious viewpoint is unlawful under the First Amendment,” three judges concluded in a sometimes strongly worded decision.
Josh Skinner, the principals’ attorney, said he was disappointed by the ruling and might appeal it.
“It’s an area of the law that’s very unclear,” he said. “We think that the law is ambiguous, and that there have been conflicts among the several courts about how to handle this.”
The ruling is the latest round in a complex, years-long legal battle sparked after the two Plano ISD principals confiscated students’ pencils, pens and other gifts at school parties beginning in 2001.
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.
Kelly Shackelford, president of the Plano-based Liberty Institute, which represented the parents who filed the suit, said that the ruling was “a big win for the First Amendment and for millions of students nationwide.”
“It is truly outrageous for school officials to argue they have a right to engage in religious speech discrimination against elementary school students,” he said in a written statement.
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 district revised its policy regulating when the materials could be distributed, and the same appeals court upheld that policy in December. Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined the parents’ appeal of that decision.