The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a preliminary investigation into a Texas school district that was sued yesterday for allegedly infringing on the rights of students and parents to exercise their Christian faith on school property.

As WorldNetDaily reported, lawyers filed suit on behalf of 20 students and parents of the Plano Independent School District, claiming the district’s policies and practices – which include a ban on candy cane distribution when a religious card is attached, a ban on parents giving religious-oriented items to one another on school property, a ban on criticizing school board members or administrators on campus, and the barring of any colors but white at a school “Winter Break” party – are unconstitutional.

“It is great to have a Justice Department that cares about religious freedom,” said Hiram Sasser, director of litigation with Liberty Legal Institute, one of the groups representing the plaintiffs.

A letter from the Justice Department to Liberty Legal [a .pdf document] requested information that might assist federal attorneys in researching whether or not action against the district is warranted.

Meanwhile, Richard Abernathy, the attorney representing the Plano district, released a statement painting attorneys involved in the lawsuit as “trial lawyers” who want to “feed at the trough of the taxpayers’ pockets.” It further states that Liberty Legal Institute has refused to dialogue with the district about specific matters and instead has “chosen litigation over dialogue.”

Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of Liberty Legal Institute, contested Abernathy’s version of their relationship.

“We’ve talked them probably over 40 times in the last two years trying to get them to do the right thing,” Shackelford told WND.

He says last year when working on behalf of a student who wanted to pass out candy canes with a religious message, Shackelford called Abernathy directly.

Explained Shackelford: “I told him, ‘Do not do this. Just let Jonathan hand out his candy canes.’ And Abernathy’s response to me was, ‘We can’t do it. It’s against school policy. We’re not going to allow it.'”

Abernathy’s statement included criticism of Liberty Legal over the cost of litigation to the district.

“In this time of great financial stress on all public school districts in the state of Texas,” it read, “the Plano ISD is disheartened by Liberty Legal’s apparent attempt to further deplete and misdirect funds needed for the education of students.”

Shackelford said that was his “favorite” part.

“It’s unbelievable hypocrisy,” he told WND. “This is a guy who gets paid by the taxpayers. In fact, the producing of the press release itself he gets paid for. Meanwhile, the attorneys on this side are all donating their time to protect religious freedom. Now, who is feeding at the taxpayer trough?”

The U.S. District Court in Sherman, Texas, is expected to rule today on a request for a temporary restraining order, which would suspend school-district policy so children and parents could distribute religious material at tomorrow’s white-only “Winter Break” party.

The Alliance Defense Fund is also involved in representing the Plano students and parents in the litigation.

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