Friday, December 6, 2013

Public School Bans Religious Fliers

In Kansas, a seventh-grade student at Robert E. Clark Middle School wanted to distribute and post fliers that advertised a religious event. The event is called “See You at the Pole,” involving a student-led prayer performed around the flagpole before the school day. Even though many other fliers have been allowed to be distributed and posted in the school, this student was prohibited from doing so.
            The fliers the student was distributing contained Bible verses to promote the event, which would consist of prayer for the school, students, staff, and the country. After handing out the fliers at school, the student was approached by a school counselor at a school dance and was told that her fliers were “illegal.” This was based on the policy within the district that banned the “distribution of religious materials…on school grounds or in any attendance facility before, during, or after the school day or a school activity.” After school officials removed and destroyed the fliers the student had posted, she continued to secretly hand out fliers to other students without teachers’ knowledge. Because she was not able to publicly provide students with information about the event, the event was poorly attended.
            The Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit for the student, as her First Amendment rights concerning freedom of religion and free speech had been violated. They argued that students should not have to surrender their constitutional rights in the public school. The freedom of speech cannot be discriminated based on its viewpoint, which in this case was religious. The school allows all kinds of fliers to be posted within the school, including a poster of Lil’ Wayne that contained the phrase “Good Kush and Alcohol.” Also, the religiously oriented fliers did not have any great impact that would hinder the progression and order of the school day. Alliance Defending Freedom, therefore, believed that the school policy should be altered to allow the students their constitutionally protected rights.
            The issue here is whether this school policy of banning the distribution of religious materials violates the students’ rights of free speech and free exercise of religion as stated in the First Amendment. Although the school is allowed to set policies to monitor the students’ behavior, students should not be expected to give up their constitutionally protected rights while in the school domain. While the rules set are formed to maintain order throughout the school, the students should still be allowed some freedom, especially in situations concerning their constitutionally given rights.
            From the school’s viewpoint, I can see that this policy may have been put in place in order to avoid any sort of establishment or endorsement of religion. However, this policy functions more closely to an act of hostility towards religion. The policy singles out religion as the only subject of materials that is banned from dispersal. Therefore, the concern of this case is based on the individual students’ rights to free speech and free exercise of religion as opposed to any issues of establishment.
            There have been several cases that have dealt with free speech and free exercise of religion within the school setting. One example is Westside Community School v. Mergens (1990). In this case, a group of students was prohibited from forming an after-school Christian club. The Supreme Court ruled that the formation of this club was not a form of establishment and the students were protected by the Equal Access Act, which provides all students the ability to express themselves as they please, whether it is religiously related or not. If all other clubs are allowed, the school cannot deny a religious group to form a club as well. Similarly, in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1994), a student group that distributed publications from the Christian perspective was denied finance for publishing costs. The Supreme Court decided that denying financial subsidy to the religious publication violated the students’ First Amendment rights. Because the University funded all other publications promoting free speech, it was unconstitutional to discriminate against this specific group based on the religious content.

            These two cases and the one described here all commonly pertain to the issue of viewpoint discrimination. In these cases, the policies that had been established and the actions of the schools were prejudiced against a religious view. Even though all other groups or clubs were allowed to convene or distribute materials advertising their events, the religious groups were specifically discriminated, which is a violation of the students’ First Amendment rights. All students are entitled to their rights to free speech and the free exercise of their religions. The student at Robert E. Clark Middle School should be allowed to distribute pamphlets and advertise the religious ideas and events just as any other student is allowed to express his or her views on any other type of subject matter. Even though in some cases, such as Westside Community School v. Mergens, the school authorities might fear establishment, the overriding issue is the violation of appropriately allowing the students their First Amendment rights. The actions of the students are a reflection of the students themselves, and the schools should encourage the sharing of their diverse beliefs instead of regulating them.

            No decision on this case has been reported yet, but how do you think the court should decide? Do you think that the school policy should be changed to allow distribution of religious materials in school? Or do you think that the policy should remain the way it is because there is a legitimate fear of establishment?


Tyler J said...

I believe it the student should be allowed to hand out fliers about her religious event. The event is before school starts and is not infringing on anyone else's beliefs. The Bible verses on the fliers do not make a difference, in my opinion. Other students could easily reject a flier or throw it away if given one. I think it was especially wrong of the school to prevent her from distributing fliers when they allow ones that say "good kush and alcohol", as that seems more disruptive to me.
I agree with Maddie that this seem more hostile towards religion than preventive of an establishment. The girl should be allowed her first amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion. Changing the policy of the school would be the best course of action, because I feel there is no fear of establishment in a girl handing out a flier about a religious activity before school begins.

Liz L. said...

I believe that the student has the Constitutional right to pass out the fliers and hold a prayer before school hours. This is free speech and is similar to the Supreme Court case Cantwell v Connecticut. The case ruled that passing out fliers was acceptable as long as it was done in an nonthreatening manner. The school policy is hostile towards religion, and is not establishing or promoting any one religion. It is just a prayer. The event itself is not infringing upon anyone’s rights and is open to all. If a student of a different faith tradition wanted to start a similar event, he/she would have the same Constitutional right to do so. The event is optional and serves as an opportunity for students to gather and exercise their rights.

Yessica M said...

I agree with the comments in that the student does have the constitutional right to advertise the prayer. Would it be different if it were a student club rather than a single student? I'm not sure if it really matters but I think that it would be best for the student to form a club where students with similar interests can do things together and more organized. I think that by doing so it would prevent a wave of students creating various events that might conflict with each other and avoid the possibility of hostility between individual students with each other on their beliefs. As for the Establishment argument, it could be argued that by the school allowing such activity would result in other events and through time the school would be perceived to prefer religion over non-religion. I am taking it very far, but it just proves that slippery slope can always happen and could result to a bigger issue.

Nicole D said...

I agree with everyone that this seems to be hostility toward religion and that the student should have been allowed to distribute fliers. If the school was that concerned with being seen as violating the Establishment clause they could have asked her to put a disclaimer that the school was not sponsoring the activity, but to prevent her from advertising an event that she felt was important, and was strictly voluntary, is preventing her free speech and free exercise of religion.

Jennie M. said...

I think because the student is distributing these fliers individually to people at the school and because the school is not sponsoring the event or paying for the fliers, this does not constitute an establishment of religion. I am persuaded by the viewpoint discrimination argument and think this student should be allowed to distribute her fliers. I too think the school policy should be changed so students can more freely exercise her rights to speech and religion in her school.

Gabby D. said...

I do not really see the issue of Establishment in this case. It is one student who is an individual handing out her flyers before school hours. I do not think this one individual's actions is representative of the school's opinions at all. It is also very easy for other students on the receiving end to opt out of getting the flyers. They can simply walk away from them or discard them. This case is different than the one we have seen about the cheerleader's posters because those posters were presented by a school group at a school event. Here, these flyers are being passed out by an individual rather than a group funded by the school.