Six student members of a Bible club filed suit against school officials yesterday, claiming their constitutional right to free speech was violated when their principal tried to prohibit them from distributing candy canes that included a Christian message.
Last month, members of the L.I.F.E. Bible Club at Westfield High School in Westfield, Mass., decided to pass out candy canes before Christmas to fellow students. According to a statement from Liberty Counsel, the civil-liberties legal defense organization working on the teens’ behalf, the candy canes were attached to a folded card containing Bible verses. The card also told the story of a candy can maker who wanted to invent a candy that helped spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
According to Liberty Counsel, the students asked permission of the principal, Thomas Daley, to hand out the candy canes the day before Christmas break was to begin. Daley refused the request, saying the Christian message contained in the literature may be “offensive” to other students. He then consulted with the district superintendent, who agreed that the Christian message might be offensive to some, said Liberty Counsel.
Believing they had an obligation to God to distribute the candy canes and the attached messages, the students defied the principal and distributed 450 candy canes during non-class time. After returning to school after the holiday break, seven students were suspended for going against Daley’s wishes. Six of them are now taking legal action.
Liberty Counsel filed the lawsuit in federal court against the Westfield Public Schools, Superintendent Thomas McDowell and Principal Daley. The suit requests that the policy and actions of the school district and officials be declared unconstitutional and that the students’ suspensions be immediately removed from the files.
Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, pointed out that some of the students involved in the suit have put their academic careers on the line. One girl, a senior, is a member of the National Honor Society and is applying to colleges and universities for admission. The suspension, if allowed to stand, could cause her to lose her Honor Society standing. Another student aspires to attend a U.S. military academy – a goal that could be thwarted if his record includes a suspension.
“This case underscores the blatant hostility by some government officials toward the Christian message and the ignorance of school officials regarding the constitutional rights of students,” Staver said. “As far back as 1969, the United States Supreme Court declared that students do not shed their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse gate. Students are citizens under the Constitution and are protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”
Staver concluded, “The students as the recipients of the educational system will now become the educators, teaching the Westfield Public School officials the meaning of the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech.”
According to a Boston Globe report, Peter T. Elikann, a Boston attorney and vice chairman of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s individual rights and responsibilities section, said he thinks the school district could argue in the case that allowing the candy canes’ distribution would be endorsing the students’ religious message, a violation of federal law.
The Globe quotes Elikann as saying the school’s effort to avoid that scenario was part of ”a time-honored tradition” by government.
WorldNetDaily columnist Jerry Falwell wrote about the case on Saturday.
“Students have just as much right to speak on religious topics as they do on secular topics – no matter what the ACLU might propagate,” wrote Falwell. “Quite simply, school officials may not censor religious or Christian messages solely because another person might be ‘offended.’”
”We really don’t want to come across as sue-happy Christians,” Stephen Grabowski, 16, one of the leaders of the Bible club, told the Boston Globe. ”This is nothing against the school, but the policy needs to be changed.”