Updated Dec. 17, 2004
PLANO, Texas. (BP)–Two pro-family groups filed a federal lawsuit against a Texas public school district Dec. 15, alleging that it banned elementary students from exchanging Christian-themed candy cane pens, prohibited students from writing “Merry Christmas” on greeting cards sent to soldiers and even prevented the use of traditional Christmas colors at a school party.
The Alliance Defense Fund and the Liberty Legal Institute filed the lawsuit in federal court against the Plano Independent School District, arguing that district’s policy is unconstitutional and violates the students’ religious freedoms. The Department of Justice announced Dec. 16 that it is investigating the district’s policy.
The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order against the policy, thus allowing elementary students to hand out Christian-themed gifts at the annual holiday party Dec. 17. Last year at the same party, Jonathan Morgan, a third-grader, was prohibited from distributing candy cane pens — pens shaped like a candy cane — that included a message about Christ, the lawsuit alleges.
That same student, now in the fourth grade, wants to be able to hand out the candy cane pens at the upcoming party.
A hearing concerning the temporary restraining order request was scheduled to take place Dec. 16.
“We’re trying to make sure that what happened last year does not happen again,” Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel for the Liberty Legal Institute, told Baptist Press. “… [Last year] they insisted it was school policy. Jonathan and his dad got to the door of the schoolroom, looked in and everybody had brought their goody bags. And the principal stopped Jonathan at the door and said, ‘You can’t bring your goody bags in.'”
School officials were quoted in media reports as saying the policy has changed and that religious-themed gifts will be allowed this year.
“This appears to be an effort by ‘trial lawyers’ to feed at the trough of the taxpayers’ pockets, as opposed to truly addressing concerns through a nonlitigious manner,” according to a statement by the school district’s attorneys reported by The Dallas Morning News.
But Shackelford said he has not been notified of any policy change.
“They’re telling the media now that they’re changing their approach, but they haven’t bothered to tell the parents, the kids or us,” Shackelford said. “And their policy is exactly the same — it hasn’t been changed.”
Department of Justice official Jeremiah Glassman sent a letter to Shackelford Dec. 16, requesting a copy of the lawsuit.
“The Department is authorized to intervene in suits against public school districts alleging a denial of equal protection of the laws on the basis of religion,” Glassman wrote. “… We stress that the Department has not made any determination about the merits of the allegations but is simply conducting a preliminary inquiry into the matter.”
Shackelford said he tried but failed to talk the school system into changing its policy prior to the party last year. After the third-grader was prohibited from handing out the candy cane pens, Shackelford began hearing about other complaints.
“We started preparing the lawsuit, and calls started coming in from other people who saw the press and said, ‘You won’t believe what they did to my son or my daughter,'” Shackelford said.
Among the complaints:
— A young girl was prohibited at a birthday party from passing out pencils that included the name “Jesus.”
— Students were not allowed to write “Merry Christmas” on greeting cards to U.S. soldiers because the phrase might “offend someone.”
— Traditional Christmas colors — such as green and red — were banned from this year’s holiday party. The party, according to Shackelford, is called a “winter party.”
“They asked [parents] to bring white napkins, white paper plates and white icing,” he said. “… Then they said, ‘All other items shouldn’t be brought because it would violate the school policy against distribution of things without school approval.”
Gary McCaleb, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, called the school district policy “offensive.”
“The policy is a perfect example of politically correct extremism,” McCaleb said. “… It is offensive to the 96 percent of Americans who celebrate Christmas. If the district truly wants to avoid offending someone, then they will change their incredibly restrictive and unconstitutional policy.”
The lawsuit is Jonathan Morgan, et al. v. the Plano Independent School District, et al.