A picture of a skull with the message “You’re a rock star” is OK for a Valentine. So is a woman with the message “I like your style Valentine.” As is a rank of Lego storm troopers from “Star Wars” carrying guns and warning “Nothing can stop us.”
But in Nazareth, Pa., area schools, an explanation of the real St. Valentine and a personal expression of religious faith must be censored.
Now a lawsuit has been brought against the district for its policy allowing school officials to restrict communication by students based on the content of their message.
Public schools should encourage, not suppress, the free exchange of ideas, including those communicated through Valentine’s Day cards, contends the Alliance Defending Freedom, which filed the case on behalf of a young student whose name is not being publicized.
The complaint identifies the student’s parents as Donald and Ellen Abramo.
“A Bible verse and a reference to God does not make such a card unconstitutional,” said ADF Legal Counsel Matt Sharp. “Religious expression is just as protected by the First Amendment as other messages that students communicate.”
ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco said that to “single out a faith-based message for censorship is exactly the type of hostility to religion that the First Amendment forbids.”
“We hope the school district will revise its policies to respect the constitutionally protected free speech of its students and make ongoing litigation unnecessary,” he said.
The dispute arose during the district’s recognition of “Friendship Day,” which also is Valentine’s Day.
Students were allowed to exchange Valentines. One student who had taken the time to research the history of the holiday created a message for his classmates that said: “Happy Valentine’s Day! St. Valentine was imprisoned and martyred for presiding over marriages and for spreading the news of God’s Love. In honor of St. Valentine’s Day, I want you to know that God loves you!! ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.’ John 3:16.”
Officials at Floyd R. Shafer Elementary School in Nazareth censored the Valentine, insisting they needed to stop the message before it could reach other students.
According to the ADF complaint, Principal William Mudlock said the message was censored because of its religious nature and because it contained a Bible verse.
Officials cited their Policy 220, “which states that the school officials can prohibit student expression that seeks ‘to establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect or point of view.’”
But the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, noted that the same federal court struck down an identically worded policy in 2008, because it restricted “what effectively amounts to all religious speech, which is clearly not permissible under the First Amendment.”
School officials, who did not respond to a WND request for comment, told the student’s parents that the U.S. Constitution’s “freedom from religion” authorized them to “limit religious expression.”
ADF explained, however, that students don’t lose their constitutional rights in school, private student expression that is non-disruptive is protected by the First Amendment, religious speech is protected by the same amendment and the government may not discriminate against speech based on its viewpoint.
Consequently, ADF alleged, the school violated the Free Speech Clause, the Free Exercise Clause, Due Process, the Establishment Clause, Equal Protection and the Religious Freedom Protection Act.
“[The district] has no rational or compelling reason that would justify its censorship of J.A.’s religious Valentine’s cards,” the complaint alleges. “Forcing J.A. to choose between following his religious beliefs by sharing his faith through written holiday cards to his classmates and being denied access, and abandoning his religious beliefs so that he may distribute secular holiday cards, creates a substantial burden on J.A.”
The complaint alleges that the school district had been notified of the problem with its policy before the dispute developed because of a similar case that was decided by the courts and a subsequent evaluation of school policies in Pennsylvania by ADF attorneys.
Shortly after ADF contacted Nazareth school officials about the potential problem, the Pennsylvania School Board Association issued a notice to its members.
The notice, ADF said, “affirmed that student expression cannot be restricted based upon its religious content or viewpoint, stating that ‘student-initiated religious expression is permissible and shall not be prohibited except as to time, place and manner of distribution, or if the expression involved violates some other part of this policy.”
“Despite warnings from both Alliance Defending Freedom and the Pennsylvania School Board Association, NASD took no effort to amend its unconstitutional Policy 220,” the complaint explains.