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Court erases student’s gift of pencils bearing Christian message

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal appeals court’s ruling that a child may not give pencils bearing the inscription “Jesus [loves] the little children” to his classmates is “yet one more ludicrous example of the federal courts’ attempt to help governments at every level to enforce a rigidly secular bias on our public spaces,” said Southern Baptist church-state specialist Richard Land.

The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a federal judge’s decision that a New Jersey school system acted constitutionally in prohibiting a 4-year-old student from distributing the pencils at a spring class party. A three-judge panel of the Third Circuit unanimously affirmed the school system had not violated the child’s rights under the First Amendment’s protection of free exercise of religion and freedom of expression nor the 14th Amendment’s equal protection guarantees.

In 1998, Daniel Walz sought to distribute pencils inscribed with “Jesus [loves] the little children” — with a heart symbol for the word “loves” — to his pre-kindergarten classmates during a party in the classroom shortly before Easter. His teacher confiscated the pencils and reported them to the school superintendent of Egg Harbor Township. The superintendent decided the pencils could not be passed out because students and parents might interpret distribution as a school endorsement of the message.

The Third Circuit panel ruled the school’s action was appropriate.

Walz “was not attempting to exercise a right to personal religious observance in response to a class assignment or activity,” Chief Judge Anthony Scirica wrote for the panel. “His mother’s stated purpose was to promote a religious message through the channel of a benign classroom activity. In the context of its classroom holiday parties, the school’s restrictions on this expression were designed to prevent proselytizing speech that, if permitted, would be at cross-purposes with its educational goal and could appear to bear the school’s seal of approval.”

Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “The idea that a child should not have the right to share his faith at an appropriate, discretionary time when other gifts are being shared is to mangle the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections beyond recognition. Actions like this decision illustrate the extreme secular bias of our nation’s courts and many of our nation’s public institutions, including the public’s schools. I would strongly encourage the residents of this township to hire employees who would ditch these ludicrous and offensive restrictions.”

John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute called the decision “probably one of the worst I’ve ever read,” according to CitizenLink. “What they’re saying to schools in the Third Circuit is that ‘you have total control, and kids have no freedom at all.'”

Whitehead told Family News in Focus, “All we’re asking here is for freedom of religion and the right of this little boy to be treated like everybody else in the class who are handing out all kinds of things with Christmas messages and Hanukkah messages on them.”

The Rutherford Institute is helping represent Walz and his mother, Dana. He will appeal to the full Third Circuit Court and, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court, Whitehead said.

CitizenLink and Family News in Focus are both services of Focus on the Family.

After Daniel Walz’s efforts to give away the pencils were spurned, he sought to distribute another gift at the class holiday party the next December. He attempted to give away candy canes attached to copies of a story titled “A Candy Maker’s Witness, ” which told of the Christian symbolism of the candy. The school did not allow him to pass them out during the party but did permit him to do so in the hallway after class.

The appeals court panel acknowledged students do not forfeit their free speech rights when they go on school property but said school officials rightfully must limit some speech to control behavior. “As a general matter, the elementary school classroom, especially for kindergartners and first graders, is not a place for student advocacy,” the panel wrote.

The school system has an unwritten policy barring the distribution during school hours of items bearing religious, political or commercial messages, superintendent Leonard Kelpsh said.

The appeals court ruling, which was released Aug. 27 to little notice, seems certain to add to calls to bring the federal judiciary under control. Many conservative Christians and some religious liberty organizations have contended in recent years the federal courts are acting as lawmakers and overreaching their constitutional authority.

The case is Walz v. Egg Harbor Township Board of Education.

The Third Circuit includes the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

A recent example of what critics describe as judicial tyranny occurred in the 11th Circuit, where the appeals court agreed a Ten Commandments display in Alabama’s judicial building was unconstitutional and must be moved.