- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 18 (UPI) — A federal judge in Massachusetts ruled Tuesday that students had the right to pass out Christmas candy canes with a religious message at a public high school.

The Justice Department, which supported the students along with the American Civil Liberties Union, is praising the decision.

Members of a Bible club at Westfield High School, Mass., had been told that they could distribute the candy canes with a "Happy Holidays" message, the department said.

But they were forbidden to attach a message containing a prayer and a description of the religious origins of the candy cane.

The religious material, including Bible verses, was contained in a folded card attached to the candy.

At first, the Bible club members asked the school principal whether they could distribute the candy and messages.

When that was refused, the students passed out the material during non-class hours and were disciplined by the school.

However, the federal judge ruled Tuesday that the one-day suspensions given to the seven students violated their first amendment rights, and entered a preliminary injunction barring the school from punishing them or enforcing similar speech restrictions against them.

The students first filed suit in January and moved for a preliminary injunction against the school.

The Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts then filed friend-of-the-court briefs, urging the judge to rule in favor of the students in the case, Westfield L.I.F.E. Club vs. City of Westfield.

In a 62-page ruling, the judge held that there was no evidence that the students' distribution of the religious messages with the candy canes was disruptive.

"School-age children are compelled by law to attend school, but while there lawfully, they enjoy the right to free personal intercommunication with other students, so long as their communication with other students does not substantially or materially disrupt the operation of the classroom or impinge upon the rights of others," the ruling said.

Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd, chief of the department's Civil Rights Division, said the judge's decision was well-within Supreme Court precedent.

"The Supreme Court, more than 30 years ago, held that students do not shed their free speech rights at the school house gates," Boyd said in a statement. "Nonetheless, some schools have persisted in the mistaken belief that once students step inside those gates, they enter religion-free zones where expressions of faith are prohibited. This decision sends a strong message that schools may not discriminate against student expression simply because it is religious."

The Justice Department said the judge rejected the school's claim that the First Amendment's separation of church and state required school officials to ban the religious messages on candy canes. The "Establishment clause" forbids government "establishment of religion."

While school-sponsored religious speech is forbidden by the Constitution, the ruling said, student religious speech is constitutionally protected:

"At the heart of the school's argument lies a widely held misconception of constitutional law that has infected our sometimes politically overcorrect society: The Establishment clause does not apply to private action; it applies only to government action."

The judge also rejected the school's claim that the religious messages could be barred because they might be offensive to non-Christian students. Those students could get throw away the religious message and eat the candy.

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