Bloomberg News

Top Court Rejects Suit Over School Ban on Christian Gifts

June 11, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to let two families sue elementary school principals who kept their children from giving out Christian-themed gifts during classroom parties.

The justices, without comment, rejected an appeal by the families, who said officials at Texas grade schools should be held personally liable for stifling the free-speech rights of children seeking to proselytize grade-school classmates.

“All students, including elementary school students, have at the very least the basic First Amendment right to be free from discrimination against their private, non-curricular speech based solely upon its religious viewpoint,” the families said in their appeal.

The case involved questions about when government officials can be sued as individuals for on-the-job conduct that violates someone’s constitutional rights. Under a standard known as qualified immunity, courts shield government employees from personal liability, except in cases where the law is so clear that reasonable people would know their actions were unconstitutional.

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, while the school principals were wrong to keep students from handing out religious material under these circumstances, they couldn’t be sued. It wasn’t clear under the law, the court said, where the principals should have drawn the line between students’ right to profess their faith and a public school’s obligation to avoid government support for a particular religion.

Establishment Clause

The Constitution’s First Amendment bans government “establishment of religion.”

Principals and teachers “must maintain the delicate constitutional balance between students’ free-speech rights and the Establishment Clause imperative to avoid endorsing religion,” the principals said in their Supreme Court brief. “Educators should not suffer personal monetary liability for making a mistake in this area of the law.”

The lawsuits cited an incident in which Lynn Swanson, principal at Thomas Elementary School in the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas, prohibited third-grade student Jonathan Morgan from handing out gift bags at a 2003 classroom party. The bags contained candy canes attached to laminated bookmarks saying that the sweets were shaped like a letter “J” to represent Jesus, and that the red stripes symbolized blood shed by Christ to atone for mankind’s sins.

‘Jesus Loves Me’

In another incident at Plano’s Rasor Elementary School, in January 2004, Principal Jackie Bomchill wouldn’t let fifth- grader Stephanie Versher distribute pencils imprinted with the words “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Earlier that month, Bomchill prohibited the girl from handing out tickets to a local church’s presentation of a play about the crucifixion of Jesus.

In their suit, the children and their parents said that, because other students were allowed to give gift bags containing secular items at in-school events, the principals violated the children’s free-speech rights by prohibiting only gifts with religious messages.

“When the only thing that causes speech to be treated differently -- one pencil allowed, the other forbidden, even outside the school and after school hours -- is its religious viewpoint, the Constitution is violated,” the families said in their Supreme Court petition.

Religious Viewpoint

The children and their families believe their faith requires them to “communicate religious viewpoint ideas to their peers, classmates and other students” and introduce other children “to the truth of the Christian faith,” according to the appeals court ruling.

The principals said in their high court brief that the families incorrectly portrayed parts of the school day, such as classroom holiday parties, as forums for student-to-student communications. School personnel organize and supervise all aspects of a student’s time, they said.

“Parents have traditionally entrusted public schools with the education of their children, but condition that trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposefully be used to advance views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family,” the principals said.

The cases are Morgan v. Swanson, 11-804, and Swanson v. Morgan, 11-941.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bob Drummond in Washington at bdrummond@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net


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