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« on: December 21, 2004, 03:17:19 AM »

School System Faces Discrimination Suit, Federal Investigation

by Jim Brown
December 20, 2004

(AgapePress) - A large Texas school district has been sued over its Christmastime and religious censorship. Parents of students in the Plano Independent School District are fighting back after their children were barred from passing out candy canes with religious messages at school.

Under the Plano ISD policy, a third grade boy was denied the right to pass out goody bags, including candy canes with religious messages, to friends at a school "winter" party, while secular gifts from other students were permitted. Parents were even told they could not hand out such messages to other parents at the party. The district also instructed parents not to send their children to school with anything red or green this holiday season. The letter the schools sent home with the students informed their parents that all cups, plates, napkins and icing brought to school must be white, or the children would be in violation of the district's policy.

Liberty Legal Institute, a legal organization committed to the defense of religious freedoms and First Amendment rights, has filed suit on behalf of four families from different elementary schools in the Plano ISD. According to Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for LLI, the lawsuit presents a substantial amount of evidence demonstrating pervasive religious hostility in the school district's policies and actions.

Sasser says widespread religious discrimination is taking place in the Plano school system. "We've documented it going on since 2001," he notes. "It's a really serious problem. And if Plano doesn't fix this very fast, not only are they going to have a problem with our lawsuit, but they have federal guidelines that they have to follow in order to receive their federal funding, and that may become an issue at some point."

The apparent religious hostility has not been confined to the holiday season either, Sasser points out. For example, he says one young girl in the district was forbidden from passing out pencils with "Jesus" written on them, while another child was told she could not invite her friends to an Easter event at her church.

The Liberty Legal spokesman says the Plano ISD censorship policies, in addition to violating the students' constitutional rights under the First Amendment, also lack common sense. "All students have a right of free speech to say or pass out whatever they want," he asserts, "as long as when they do it they are not materially and substantially disrupting the educational process. That's what the Supreme Court said in 1969."

Under the law, the attorney asserts, school officials have no right to suppress or exclude the speech or personal expression of students or their parents simply because it is religious or includes religious content. "So you can hand your friends 'Jesus' pencils," he says, "and you can hand your friends 'The Legend of the Candy Cane.' As long as you're not causing a disruption, that's okay."

Sasser believes the Plano ISD targeted the students for discrimination solely because their messages were religious in nature. Although the LLI attorneys representing the parents made several efforts to talk the district into putting an end to its unconstitutional violations and discriminations, the school officials were unwilling to back down.

Last Thursday a federal judge ruled in favor of the parents' request for a temporary restraining order against Plano ISD. By order of the court, the students must be allowed to bring gifts with religious content and red and green napkins without fear of discrimination.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation with the intention of looking into the allegations that the Plano ISD denied students' equal protection of the laws on the basis of religion. Sasser commends the government officials' action, noting that it is "great to have a Justice Department that cares about religious freedom."


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