This Monday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments on if students in elementary schools have the protections of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The case surfaced in the Plano Independent School District in Texas where Thomas Elementary School Principal Lynn Swanson and Rasor Elementary School Principal Jackie Bomchill were sued for restricting student speech when it referenced “God” or “Jesus.”
According to the Liberty Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting freedoms and strengthening families, in a prior incident, officials banned 8-year-old Jonathan Morgan from handing out candy with Jesus’ name on them to classmates at a school party. “Then they confiscated a little girl’s pencils after school because they mentioned ‘God,’” the Institute reported. The group also reported that: “They even banned an entire classroom from writing ‘Merry Christmas’ on cards to our troops serving in Iraq.”
The disagreement began in district court then progressed to a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit where school officials’ efforts to have the complaint rejected because of their “immunity” failed. Now the 5th Circuit appeals court has arranged an en banc hearing in which 17 judges will listen to arguments and decide the dispute.
The school officials are arguing, “that the First Amendment does not apply to elementary school students,” explains the appeal brief submitted by Liberty Institute. They are claiming that the case is a dispute of “first impression,” – that is, the first time the question has been raised. Swanson and Bomchill are urging, “that the First Amendment does not apply to elementary school students.” According to school officials, “neither the Supreme Court nor this Court has ever extended First Amendment ‘freedom of speech’ protection to the distribution of non-curricular materials in public elementary schools,” the brief explains.
Liberty Institute asserts, “The First Amendment is not implicated by restrictions on student-to-student distribution of non-curricular materials by elementary school students to their classmates.” Kelly Shackelford, the president and CEO of Liberty Institute, Stated that the fundamental question that remains is whether the appeals court will “strip away the First Amendment rights of kids and their parents in the schools.”
Shackelford believes this could quickly turn into slippery slope; If an elementary school student has no First Amendment rights, what about a middle school or junior high student. What if this later extends to the adult collegiate level? “This is chilling. What this means if they have no First Amendment rights is that they have no right to have a viewpoint different from the government,” he said.
Shackleford said he is pleading with Christian organizations and groups to be in prayer this weekend over the arguments and the outcome. According to his statement, “Whatever confusion may exist about student speech and the Religion Clauses, the confusion does not extend to the fundamental principle that school officials may not discriminate against student speech solely because it expresses a religious viewpoint.”