- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

A group of Christian high school students in Massachusetts has filed a federal lawsuit against a public school district, claiming school officials violated their free speech.

Two weeks ago, officials at Westfield High School suspended the six students for one day after the students passed out candy canes and religious messages to their classmates before Christmas.

The students, who are members of the school's Bible Club, filed their lawsuit on Monday in U.S. District Court in Springfield, Mass. They asked a judge to throw out their suspensions, allow them to distribute religious materials at school while the lawsuit is pending and declare the school's actions unconstitutional.

School officials have said policy prohibits students from distributing any material unrelated to the curriculum. They said the students were told they could not pass out the candy canes. The students were also warned that if they did, they would run the risk of being punished for insubordination.

Westfield Public Schools Superintendent Thomas McDowell and Westfield High School Principal Thomas Daley, who are both named defendants in the lawsuit, did not return telephone calls yesterday.

Mathew Staver, president and general counsel of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel, which is representing the students, said by filing a lawsuit the students are standing up for their constitutional right to freedom of speech. The case is poised to pit arguments of freedom of speech against those of separation of church and state.

"This case underscores the blatant hostility by some government officials toward the Christian message and the ignorance of school officials regarding the constitutional rights of students," said Mr. Staver, whose religious civil-liberties group is affiliated with the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

"As far back as 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that students do not shed their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse gate," Mr. Staver said. "The students, as the recipients of the educational system, will now become the educators, teaching the Westfield Public School officials the meaning of the Constitution's guarantee of free speech."

The case in Massachusetts closely resembles one involving Daniel Walz of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., who in 1998 was prohibited by school officials from giving his classmates pencils or candy canes with evangelical Christian messages on them during Easter and Christmas.

Last February, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the school district did not deprive Daniel of his rights by forbidding the religious handouts. At the time, Daniel was a 5-year-old in a pre-kindergarten class.

The family appealed and the case was back in court last week before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. At issue remains whether Daniel, still a student at H. Russell Swift School, should be allowed to hand out items to classmates in the future. The appeals court is expected to rule on the case in the spring.

"To prohibit a student from handing out gifts of his choosing to his classmates simply because the school is afraid that a parent will mistakenly assume school participation is ludicrous," said John Whitehead, president of the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, an international civil-liberties organization representing Daniel.

"We are hopeful the [court] will see through the school officials' justifications and recognize their actions for what they are religious discrimination."

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