- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

School officials at a public high school in Hampton, Va., have ordered a student Christian club to eliminate "Easter" from the title of an annual canned food drive because it may offend students of other faiths.
If they want to hold the event this year, the Warriors for Christ were told they must call it the Spring Canned Food Drive by a teacher at Kecoughtan High School, according to attorneys with the California-based Pacific Justice Institute.
Frustrated by the school's stance, several students, who are not members of the club, began circulating a petition urging school officials to allow the use of Easter in the fund-raiser's name.
"The [schools] decision just makes no sense," said Andrew Jenkins, a 15-year-old sophomore who initiated the petition. "[School officials] have always used words like Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa. That they wouldn't allow this club to use the word 'Easter,' it just didn't seem right."
School officials said the event, which benefits a local YMCA women's shelter, has historically been called the Spring Canned Food Drive, and that the club requested the name change when it took over the project this year. The drive runs through next week.
Ann Stephens, a spokeswoman for the school system, said the school system generally does not refer to religious holidays by their names. For example, "spring break" is used instead of "Easter break" and the Christmas vaction is called "winter break."
"It's to make for harmony in our schools as best we can," Miss Stephens said. "We want to make sure that none of our students feels left out."
The Pacific Justice attorneys, who have volunteered to take up the issue with the local school district, said the school administrators' orders violate the student clubs' rights protected under the Equal Access Act. The law prohibits public schools from denying equal access to students who want to conduct a meeting within a limited open forum on the basis of religious, political, philosophical content of speech at such meetings.
"This sets a terrible precedent," said Craig Parshall, a Fredericksburg-area lawyer who is one of the attorneys representing the students. "This smacks of theophobia where now the schools are nitpicking at names. This is simply a result of being overzealous and being overly cautious on the issue of the separation of church and state."
Last week, the Pacific Justice attorneys sent the Hampton school officials a legal notice asking them to allow the club to keep Easter in the event's name.
City school officials, who received the notice Monday, said they could not comment on the legalities of the incident and that they have forwarded all the information to the school district's attorneys.
Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said schools must remain "neutral" when it comes to issues of religion but not eliminate it from the schools altogether.
Mr. Willis said many educators get confused about what is and is not allowed on school property, and some unintentionally may take it to extremes. That's what may have happened at Kecoughtan, he said.
"We have some administrators who still push a near-religious agenda, which is unconstitutional, and then we have others who tend to overreact and develop policies that end up discriminating against certain students," Mr. Willis said.


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