Maricopa Unified School District offices
A public school that once permitted community organizations to distribute literature to students but barred churches from passing out similar flyers has now relented under pressure from a determined pastor and his legal counsel.
The Maricopa, Ariz., Unified School District formalized a change to a literature distribution policy that previously denied First Baptist Church of Maricopa Pastor Jim Johnson’s request to hand out flyers advertising his church’s Awana Journey 24 Club, a weekly Bible study program for high school students.
“The district deserves credit for doing the constitutionally correct thing,” said attorney Jeremy Tedesco of the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal alliance that defends religious liberty and assisted Johnson in the case. “The decision to modify the policy is a victory for the First Amendment rights of all students and religious groups who merely asked for equal treatment.”
When Johnson first submitted the flyer advertising the Bible program to the school district early this year, he was forced to wait nearly five months before the district rejected his distribution request. School officials cited a policy that that allowed nonprofit organizations to distribute literature promoting events and activities “that extend the community’s cultural, recreational, artistic, or educational opportunities,” but prohibited “material that promotes a particular religious belief” or any “non-school promotional literature soliciting for or promoting participation in … religion.”
In July, Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed a lawsuit on Johnson’s behalf in federal court.
“Christians shouldn’t be discriminated against for expressing their beliefs,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman on the organization’s website. “Prohibiting religious groups from taking part in an open forum while allowing all non-religious nonprofits to participate is a clear violation of the First Amendment according to well-established federal court precedent.”
“Christians have the same First Amendment rights as anyone else in America,” said Tedesco. “School districts cannot treat people or groups with non-religious viewpoints more favorably than those with religious viewpoints.”
Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the school district reversed its decision in Johnson’s case, and earlier this month, formally changed its policy.
ADF has since voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit.
“We appreciate the school district’s decision to do the right thing,” said Cortman. “The district recognized that the First Amendment is clear and that federal court precedent is overwhelmingly in favor of equal treatment for religious speech.”