Friday, December 17, 2004

A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order this week that allows students in Plano, Texas, schools to hand out religious messages during classroom holiday parties, decorate in Christmas colors and use religious-themed holiday decorations.

U.S. District Judge Paul Brown said the Plano Independent School district couldn’t restrict students and their parents from handing out candy with religious messages. Last year, the school district wouldn’t allow the dispersement of such candy, and when it threatened to do so this year, the Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute filed a lawsuit that claims the students’ religious liberties are being infringed upon.

“A school district can engage in this silly pretense there is no Christmas but they cannot ban students and parents from living out their faith,” LLI attorney Kelly Shackelford said.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of four families cites a Dec. 6 letter to fourth-grade parents at Thomas Elementary from six teachers asking for Hershey’s kisses, sugar cookies and white napkins and plates for a Winter Break party yesterday. It says parents were instructed to avoid red- and green-colored decorations, candy and icing on the cookies because of the colors’ association with the holiday.

“Last year, parents were instructed to not bring any religious symbols to decorate the classroom with,” Mr. Shackelford said, “but they were asked to bring snowflakes, sleds and ‘snowpeople.’ They couldn’t say ‘snowmen.’ People who sink to that level of [political correctness] I can’t understand.”

A school district spokeswoman denied there was any color-specific policy relating to classroom holiday parties.

District officials said the judge’s order is “unnecessary,” as it instructed its principals at the beginning of the month to allow “non-instructional time” for all cards, gifts and treats to be exchanged as long as they do not cause “a material and substantial disruption, are obscene, vulgar or otherwise inappropriate for these students.”

“[The district] fosters acceptance of all cultures and welcomes the celebration of our diversity during the Winter Break parties,” it added.

However, the Justice Department’s civil rights division has begun a preliminary inquiry into the case, according to a Dec. 16 letter to Mr. Shackelford from the agency posted at

The lawsuit includes a 160-page complaint, describing numerous incidents of religious discrimination beginning last year when a Thomas Elementary third-grader, Jonathan Morgan, was not allowed to pass out candy canes with an attached message explaining their Christian origins.

Pencils with “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” were also forbidden in one of the schools, as were “Merry Christmas” greetings on cards sent by students to U.S. soldiers serving overseas, according to the complaint.

Mr. Shackelford said a student attempting to pass out the pencils had them confiscated. The student’s mother went to the school to complain, and when she left upset, she was overheard saying, “Satan is sure in this building,” which prompted the principal to call police. Officers confronted the mother on school property, he said.

“They asked her what sort of threat she had made and when she told them, they started laughing,” he added. “Whenever she visited the school after that, she was stalked by the principal.”

Yesterday, Jonathan was allowed to pass out candy canes to classmates.

The judge also ordered the school district to post a copy of restraining order “in a conspicuous location” at every school having a party yesterday.

School districts elsewhere in the country are hearing similar complaints from parents.

In Mustang, Okla., parents were so incensed that the local superintendent cut a Nativity scene out of the school play, they banded together this week to defeat the district’s $11 million school bond package.

Adding fuel to their fire was the inclusion of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa symbols, as well as a Christmas tree and a Santa Claus, in the play. The bond will go before voters again in April.

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