- The Washington Times - Monday, August 27, 2001

Two schools districts, one in Michigan and another in Wisconsin, are changing their policies on distribution of religious literature after they were sued by Christian students who claim they were denied their right to share their faith at school.
The federal lawsuits are the latest of a growing number of legal challenges that have been filed nationwide against school systems over issues of freedom of speech and religion on school grounds.
"There are more and more cases going on like this these days," said Erik Stanley, litigation counsel at Liberty Counsel, a civil liberties law practice in Orlando, Fla., which represented students in both cases.
"I think a lot of it revolves around the fact that there are a number of misconceptions regarding what students' rights are in the public schools," Mr. Stanley said. "For some reason school administrators seem to be under the assumption that religion has no place in the public schools, and that means students have no business in bringing their religion to public schools. That is certainly not the case.
"A student as a private citizen has a right to religion and freedom of speech."
In Michigan, two high school students, Valerie Snyder, a senior who has graduated, and Daniel Duefrene, now a junior, filed a federal lawsuit in May against the Houghton-Portage Township School District. Their suit charged that the district's policy governing religious literature distribution was unconstitutional.
The policy stated: "The distribution of any religious materials, bound or unbound, is prohibited on school grounds or in any attendance facility before, during or after the school day or a school activity." The policy defined "religious materials" as any versions of the Bible, translations of the Septuagint and the Apocrypha, Torah, Koran or any other similar religious books of faith, pamphlets, sectarian or denomination books, tracts, papers or other such material including pictures, symbols, crosses, statues or icons.
According to the lawsuit, the students and several other classmates attempted to distribute Campus Crusade Survival Kits, created by the Campus Crusade for Christ organization, at Houghton High School on Nov. 21 last year. The kits contained a Bible, a video, a Christian music CD, audiotaped testimonies of well-known athletes, a key chain, notepad and a book.
School officials told the students that they should not hand out the kits because it violated school policy. After the lawsuit was filed, the district repealed the policy and adopted new rules that allow students to distribute religious literature during non-class time.
In Wisconsin, Liberty Counsel filed suit on behalf of second-grader Morgan Nyman and her family. Morgan, 8, ran afoul of officials at Cushing Elementary School who made classmates return her Christian Valentine's Day cards that read "Jesus Loves You." They also took objection to religious tracts that Morgan passed out to classmates at Halloween.
Morgan, said Mr. Stanley, was devastated by the reaction of school officials, who said they were following policy set forth by the Kettle Moraine School District.
After the lawsuit was filed earlier this year, the school board redrafted its policy on literature distribution and also created new rules that would better define religious expression at schools. A final board vote on the new rules is set for tomorrow, but the revamped policy is expected to pass without much debate.
"Part of the problem in this case is that this policy singled out religious literature for disfavored treatment," Mr. Stanley said of the Wisconsin school district. Under it, a student would be allowed to pass out a Britney Spears CD to friends, but a student who wanted to give away a Christian CD could not.
"Our purpose for taking on this case was to make people and this school district understand that religion has just as much place as any other viewpoint and should not be singled out," he said. "There are students in school who have a religious viewpoint that they want to get out to their fellow students, and they have as much right to advance that as a student with a secular viewpoint.
"Just as schools have been careful not to violate the establishment clause, they need to also be careful to not send a message of hostility to religion."


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