A senior at Cascade High School in Everett, Washington, is in danger of being expelled because of his Christian beliefs and his conviction that it’s his responsibility to share them with others.
The Pacific Justice Institute, which has gone to court seeking protection for student Michael Leal, says it’s fighting the district’s “egregious” speech restrictions in its lawsuit against the Everett School District.
Leal has been suspended and threatened with expulsion for communicating about his faith with other students through printed tracts and his own testimony.
School officials have claimed that Leal’s tracts, such as one called “How to Know God,” and other Christian messages, may be offensive.
PJI attorneys said they were shocked to discover that the school allows students to distribute “literature” to other students only at the school entrances and exits before and after school, and the literature must be written by a student.
They pointedly noted that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Tinker case two generations ago that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.
“It is troubling to see a school district dig in its heels on a policy that is so clearly unconstitutional,” said Brad Dacus, president of PJI. “We are eager to vindicate Mr. Leal’s rights and prevent him from being expelled for simply sharing his deeply held beliefs.
“We need more high school seniors, not less, who have strong moral convictions and are concerned about their fellow students.”
District officials refused to respond to WND’s request for comment.
Mike Patterson, who said he is an attorney who represents the school, said the school is following Supreme Court precedent.
“We have policies and procedures that tell M.L. what he can do and when he can do it,” he told WND. “He has been disruptive, and we have responded.”
Conrad Reynoldson, who is serving PJI as local counsel on the case, said the policies and procedures challenged in this case would prevent students from handing out not only Gospel tracts but also copies of the Constitution.
“This is an egregious violation of student rights that should concern people of all faiths and philosophical persuasions. We simply cannot allow the government to impose these types of sweeping speech restrictions,” he said.
Along with the district, the complaint names as defendants Supt. Gary Cohn, Cascade High School principal Cathy Woods and Cascade assistant principals Robert Aguilar and Laura Phillips.
The court filing, in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, seeks a change in school policy and damages for the alleged violations of the First and 14th Amendments.
The complaint admits Leal has been known to hand out Gospel tracts to fellow students and to engage them in conversation during lunch breaks. He also spoke about his faith at a bonfire for the school, at a school open house and at a volleyball game.
The school responded with a Notice of Disciplinary Action that charged Leal’s “boisterous conduct of religious material impinged on rights of other students and failure to comply with multiple administrative requests to stop activity.”
The dispute escalated to further notices and ultimately a series of suspensions.
According to the complaint, the principal, Woods, “instructed Leal that she must give him permission to hand out tracts, and further that she needed to monitor him.”
“She attempted to justify her position by stating that if she allowed Leal to ‘hand out tracts and to talk about Jesus she would be breaking the law.’ Attempting to understand the principal’s position clearly, Leal asked to confirm that ‘if you allow me to hand out tracts and to talk about Jesus, then you would be breaking the law?’ Woods’ response was an unqualified ‘yes,'” according to the complaint.
The complaint said the school responded by stating a rule that gives the principal “unbridled discretion” to restrict the student’s speech.
“They have prohibited him from distributing literature outside of the narrow confines [of a policy rule], even when performed during non-instructional time and in a non-disruptive manner. Further, they have meted out punishment against Leal for exercising his speech rights,” the complaint explains.