Kindergartners at a public school in Oregon were invited to bring cards to a Christmas party, but a teacher barred one student from distributing his holiday greeting because it mentioned Jesus Christ, prompting a lawsuit filed yesterday.
The Gresham-Barlow district near Portland said Justin Cortez could not distribute the Christmas card because it would violate district policies prohibiting school officials from promoting one religion over another and advocating a particular religious position.
The Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice filed the case on behalf of 6-year-old Justin and his mother Julie Cortez.
The ACLJ said the suit contends Justin’s card is student speech and part of a broad, balanced Christmas party where other students distributed candy canes, cards and other gifts.
The suit also contends the school district violated one of its own policies designed to protect the religious beliefs of students. One policy states “[c]are must be taken to ensure that students do not experience exclusion because of their religious beliefs or practices.”
Stuart J. Roth, senior counsel of the ACLJ, called the school district’s barring of a Christmas card with a religious reference “absurd.”
“The facts of this case are clear: The school district not only violated the constitutional rights of this student but also ignored its own policy designed to ensure that the religious beliefs of students are protected,” Roth said.
Justin, who attends North Gresham Grade School in Gresham, Oregon, brought his card to a Dec. 19 Christmas party. The students were invited, without any restrictions, to bring cards and gifts for their classmates.
The card selected by Justin had a candy cane ornament attached to the front and included a story.
The story read: “The Meaning of the Candy Cane: Many years ago, a candy maker wanted to make a candy that symbolized the true meaning of Christmas – Jesus. The hard candy was shaped like a ‘J’ to represent Jesus’ name. The color white stands for the pureness of Jesus. The color red represents the blood Jesus sheds for us.”
When Justin’s teacher noticed the word Jesus on Justin’s card, she forwarded it to the principal who then passed it on to the superintendent.
The lawsuit – which names as defendants the Gresham-Barlow School District, the school board, the superintendent and assistant superintendent – contends the school district violated Justin’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
The ACLJ is asking for a permanent injunction to ensure “the discriminatory policies of the school district are halted.”
The public-interest law firm also wants the court to declare the policies unconstitutional.