Saturday, November 26, 2011

An Invitation to Restrict Religion

A fifth-grader in Pennsylvania attempting to invite fellow students to a church Christmas party was prevented from doing so by school officials. While students are allowed to hand out invitations to birthday parties or other private activities, the school superintendant restricted this type of invitation. The superintendant claimed that the invitation was solicitation from a third-party as opposed to personal speech by the student. The student's father challenged this restriction and was victorious in the district court.

There are multiple issues which must be considered in this case. The religious free exercise rights as well as free speech rights of the student are at stake and there is the potential for an Establishment Clause violation by the school. From the student's perspective, she was acting within her free speech as well as free exercise rights to invite classmates to the church party. The superintendant disagreed, feeling that the invitations represented the views of a third party, the church, and that the student's right to free speech was therefore not restricted. Another issue which was not directly discussed by the superintendant but is certainly germane is the potential establishment issue. The superintendant may have felt that granting permission to hand out the invitations would constitute school endorsement of the religious party thereby violating the Establishment Clause.

An important precedent to consider regarding the constitutional rights of students in public schools is Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). In this case, students protested the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school. School officials were concerned that the armbands would cause a disturbance in the school and suspended the students when they came to school wearing them. The Supreme Court ruled that the armbands constituted speech deserving of First Amendment protection unless the school could prove that the speech posed a threat to school discipline.

The Tinker precedent suggests that the distribution of invitations to a church Christmas party would classify as constitutionally protected free speech. Since the superintendant did not make a claim that the invitations caused a disturbance, the Tinker precedent leads one to believe that such speech should not be restricted. Additionally, the fact that the student is distributing invitations as opposed to verbally inviting classmates to the party does not limit her Constitutional protections. The printed invitations convey the exact same message as this verbal discussion would convey, and it would be inappropriate to restrict either of these two types of speech. While the Tinker case considered a purely secular message, there is no reason to expect that the religious focus of the church party invitations would not deserve the same legal protection. The student has the religious free exercise right to promote her church’s Christmas party without the religious content of her message being restricted. Such restrictions would constitute viewpoint discrimination, and it is this potential hostility towards the religious aspect of the student’s speech which Stephen Carter finds so disturbing about the American culture in The Culture of Disbelief.

The superintendant may try to base his restriction of the student's invitations on the basis of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000). Here, the Supreme Court found a student-delivered prayer before a high school football game to be an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause. However, Santa Fe is too different from the case at hand to provide support for the superintendant's actions. The majority in the Santa Fe decision found the prayer to have direct government support. The public school provided the platform, audience, and venue for the prayer. Based on these facts, a reasonable observer would find the school to be endorsing the religious message presented by the student at the football game. Regarding the church Christmas party invitations, the student's message would not have received school sponsorship simply by being allowed to be distributed. The school does not endorse the birthday parties of its students anymore than it would have endorsed the church party, and a reasonable child would not infer school sponsorship of either invitation. Just as any student can invite their schoolmates to a birthday party, they have the right to invite their friends to a church party and should not have such actions restricted based solely on the religious content of their message.

10 comments:

Sophie K said...

I agree with Harry that students have a right to invite their friends to a Christmas party at school. Just because invitations are passed out on school grounds, doesn’t mean the school is endorsing this particular religious activity. Furthermore, I don’t see any difference between a Christmas party held at an off-school site and a birthday party held at an off school site. Both are private functions, that the school has nothing to do with.

Justin E said...

As discussed in class, I believe the holiday of Christmas is such a tradition in American culture and history that it may be seen as a secularized holiday. Due to this, I believe the child should have been able to hand out invitation to his Christmas party. In this degree, it has no further religious identity than a sweet sixteen birthday party. I am assuming the child was also giving invitations to friends of his of other religious denominations (if he had any). Therefore one may not argue the case of religious discrimination either.

Christopher J. said...

Harry is absolutely right when he says there is no establishment issue here. The school superintendent does not understand that the student body is part of the school institution, not the school organization. Teachers, administrators, etc. are part of the school organization (they are employed by the school and oversee its administration), which means they are restricted by certain government policies as to what they can and cannot do (like not being able to post religious messages in classrooms). Students, on the other hand, are part of the school in terms of it being an institution; i.e. they attend the school, but aren’t part of its hierarchy in the same way the teachers, etc. are, meaning they are not constrained by the same policies that the school’s staff (as government employees) are. The superintendent, in failing to see this distinction, made it so the regulatory policies that constrain school employee behavior also applied to the students, which doesn’t make any sense.

Andrew Lichtenauer said...

I completely agree with Harry here. A student should be allowed to hand out invitations to a party to anyone in his class, no matter what type of party it is. Prohibiting this child from giving out invitations to the party violates the free exercise rights he has as a U.S. citizen. Also, it is fairly obvious that if the party is private and will be held off of school property, then the child is not violating the establishment clause in any way.

Liz Petrillo said...

I agree with all the above statements. The child is throwing a private school party and is not trying to persuade other children to alter their religious view points. If this child was forbidden to hand out invitations, I would say that it is a violation of the child's freedom of speech. There is no question that this child did not have any other intentions for this party but to celebrate Christmas with classmates, the historically secular holiday, that it seems in these days everyone celebrates.

Ashley R said...

I agree with Harry and with the Court. Especially considering that the school allows the distribution of invitations to other private social gatherings, this case seems exactly what Carter discusses as a blatant attempt to ban any mention of religion from the public sphere. I think the school not only violated the free speech of the student but also presented a severe hostility to religion, which the Court has ruled as being constitutionally impermissible.

Callie B said...

I agree with Harry. The invitations did not create a disturbance and were not proselytizing as it seemed was the case in Casey's article. This seems hostile to a student's free exercise rights whereas in Casey's article the concern was less about the fact that religious materials were being passed out and more concerned with the extreme disturbance and inappropriate disruption they were causing.

Sam S said...

I agree with Harry on this issue. What really comes into play with this case is that the person distributing the invitations was a student. Since it was a student, and not a teacher or employee of the school, the school should allow the student to distribute the invitations to their classmates. It would not be a government endorsement of religion because there is no government action in this case. While it is on school grounds it is a private person acting and the solicitation of invitations was not disturbing the school day.

Jon W. said...

I agree with the consensus that the student has the right to distribute invitations regardless if its for Christmas or a birthday. If it were the teacher or school promoting the party it would be a different story but since a child was distributing them he is within his rights. To allow invitations to birthday parties but not a Christmas party shows a hostility towards religion and violates the free exercise clause.

kanderson said...

Yes, i definitely do not think that this is establishment of religion. it was the girl who was handing out the invitations, not the school. plus, she was just trying to be support. though, I do think that it would have been better if the invitations were handed out outside of school grounds, just to make everything cleaner. But, at the end of the day, I do not see a real problem with this, it is not establishment of religion. it is inclusion.