Parents win 'candy cane case'; appeal looms

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PLANO, Texas — The attorney for two principals who allegedly prevented the distribution of Christian-themed items in two Texas elementary schools says his clients will appeal a recent decision that was hailed by pro-family groups.

Late last month a three-judge panel for the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the two Plano, Texas, principals could be held liable in a case that dates back to 2004 when the first suit was filed.

Both schools are part of the Plano Independent School District.

In one instance, a third-grader at a "winter break party" in 2003 allegedly was prevented from handing out gift bags to classmates because his bag contained candy cane-shaped pens accompanied by a "Legend of the Candy Cane" laminated card with a Christian message. Students who had bags without religious content were allowed to distribute their items.

In another instance, an elementary student at a 2001 winter break party placed in each of her bags pencils with the phrase "Jesus is the Reason for the Season." The bags were sealed with a sticker, but school officials allegedly opened them up to see if there were any religious materials. The pencils were confiscated.

The principals' attorney argued that freedom of speech does not apply to non-curricular materials in elementary schools. But the Fifth Circuit Court panel disagreed, writing simply, "They are wrong."

"The Supreme Court has long recognized that public school students do not 'shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,'" the opinion, authored by Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, read.

The attorney, Tom Brandt, told the Associated Press he will appeal the decision.

One of the allegations even involved the police. In January 2004 an elementary school student was warned against distributing free tickets to a Christian drama. Later that month she had a "half-birthday party" at school and wanted to give her classmates brownies accompanied by two pencils, one of which said "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so." (The school permits half-birthday parties for students whose birthday falls during the summer.) The student's mother, Sherrie Versher, went to the principal's office the day of the party to see if the pencils would be OK. Once there, she allegedly was given a letter accusing her of distributing religious property on campus, supposedly in reference to the tickets. The letter allegedly also threatened that "law enforcement officials" would be called to arrest her. When she was driving away from the school, two police cars stopped her but then let her go.

Kelly Shackelford, president of Liberty Institute, which represents some of the students and parents in the case, applauded the court's decision.

"It is truly outrageous for school officials to argue they have a right to engage in religious speech discrimination against elementary school students," he said in a statement. "The court's decision is both direct and strong, which is appropriate. This is a big win for the First Amendment and for millions of students nationwide."

Elrod was nominated to the court by President George W. Bush, as was another judge on the panel. President George H.W. Bush nominated the third judge.

BP


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