- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2014

DENVER A Colorado Springs student is suing his school district after he was ordered to stop gathering with friends informally during free time between classes to pray, sing and discuss religious topics.

The Alliance Defending Freedom announced Tuesday that attorneys have filed a lawsuit in federal court contending that the Pine Creek High School decision violates the students’ First Amendment rights, including their religious speech.

“Public schools should encourage the free exchange of ideas. Instead, this school implemented an ill-conceived ban that singles out religious speech for censorship during free time,” said ADF senior legal counsel Jeremy Tedesco in a statement.

The lawsuit says that senior Chase Windebank and other students at Pine Creek, some of whom had been meeting in the choir room for three years during “open time,” were told Sept. 29 by the assistant principal that they would no longer be permitted to discuss religious topics, citing the “separation of church and state.”

Patricia P. Richardson, the Academy School District 20 director for legal relations, stood by the school’s policy in an Oct. 9 letter, saying that club meetings were permitted before and after school but not during “instructional time.”

“We hope you now understand that we have not violated Chase’s constitutional rights,” she says in the letter.

In the lawsuit, however, attorneys contend that students who meet certain academic criteria are allowed at “open time” to “engage in a virtually unlimited variety of activities of the students’ own choosing, including hanging out in the cafeteria and other open areas with friends, playing on their phones, meeting together for expressive activities (including both formally recognized clubs and unofficial groups), and going outside to hang out together.”

The lawsuit contends that the district’s policy gives “unbridled discretion to District officials to decide what forms of expression students are permitted to engage in during open time of Seminar period and to ban any other expression — including the religious singing, prayer, and discussion of religious topics — at the whim of the officials.”

As a result, the district has sanctioned a “content-based restriction in an otherwise open forum for student expression” and “viewpoint discrimination, which is unconstitutional in any type of forum,” says the lawsuit.

Participation in the gatherings, once as high as 90 students, has dwindled to about a dozen, because many students are unable to meet before or after school due to work, sports and club commitments, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court, names the school district, Pine Creek principal Kolette Black and assistant principal James Lucas as defendants.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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