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Suit filed over restrictions on See You at the Pole poster

DEMING, N.M. (BP)–A high school senior in Deming, N.M., is suing Deming Public Schools in federal court, charging religious expression violations.

Regina M. Bishop, in a civil rights complaint filed in United States District Court in Las Cruces, alleges Deming High School censored posters promoting a See You at the Pole rally in September.

Bishop, captain of the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle, is represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, a public interest legal organization specializing in religious liberty issues, which filed on her behalf.

The suit alleges violations of First Amendment free speech and freedom of religion guarantees, of the Equal Access Act and of the 14th Amendment.

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“I don’t want to let the school get away with denying us availability and access to the things that the school has that we’d like to use,” Bishop said, “just because we’re a Christian group …. And if this is the only way to get that, then that’s what we have to do.”

Bishop’s father, Michael, is named in court papers as parent and guardian. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the Deming Board of Education in February.

The suit, naming the school board, Superintendent Hector Madrid and Deming High School principal Eric Cress as defendants, seeks a declaration that district policy is invalid and unconstitutional on the listed causes and asks an award of $1,000 or such other amount as the court deems appropriate, plus litigation cost including attorneys’ fees and other relief the court deems just and proper.

The posters the FCA wished to display contained the phrases “Taking a Stand for Christ,” “I Kneel Before the Father” and “We Bow Down.”

The posters eventually displayed on campus had the words “We Bow Down” partially covered by a strip of paper on which was written “Fellowship of Christian Athletes.”

Bishop is represented by Benjamin Bull, chief counsel of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Madrid and Cress referred comment to the district’s claims adjuster, Warren and Associates, of Las Cruces. Joel Gross, who is assigned the case but was unavailable for comment.

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The suit, Bull said, concerns whether the school district should be allowed to control whether students engage in Christian expression.

“We’re not asking the school to engage in it,” he said, “but to allow the students. If it is student-initiated, the school can’t censor the kids from engaging in it. The school cannot target students.”

According to Supreme Court precedents, Bull said, Christian expression from students is constitutionally protected, and as long as student expression doesn’t cause a riot, it is unconstitutional for the school to censor students.

“This is really a simple case,” Bull said. “All the schools have to do is give the Christian students the same rights as other students have, as other clubs have.

“If the Chess Club can say, ‘Chess is king,’ the Christian students can say, ‘Christ is King.'”

If there is concern whether a school is saying something, Bull said, a disclaimer at the bottom of a poster would solve that concern.

Bishop’s suit alleges the district has a policy restricting distribution and posting on campus of written expression by students. The policy requires students obtain permission to distribute or display posters or fliers.

The suit charges secular expression is permitted but student religious expression is banned.

The suit arises from the FCA’s participation in the annual nationwide See You At the Pole, a student-led, student-initiated movement of prayer. It centers on students praying together on the third Wednesday of September, usually before school and usually at the school’s flagpole.

It was advertised at Deming High for more than a week, with banners and announcements.

The on-campus gathering was cleared by the district after it checked with its legal consultant.

Continuing litigation in courts nationwide makes approval of such gatherings nearly a day-to-day issue, school officials said in September, given opposition from some quarters to what might appear to be a school-sponsored religious activity.

“They can post the announcement,” Madrid said before the September event, “but can’t have religious commentary on the announcement. They can even announce it over the [public address] system, as long as it is announced by a student.”

The Equal Access Act, under Title VIII of Public Law 98-377, Section 802, states, “It shall be unlawful for any public secondary school which receives Federal financial assistance and which has a limited open forum to deny equal access or fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”

The law also stipulates the meeting must be voluntary and student-initiated, that there is no sponsorship of the meeting by the school or its agents or employees and that any employees or agent of the school is present only in a non-participatory capacity.
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Used by permission of The Deming Headlight.

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