It’s amazing how much trouble you can get into just for handing out a candy cane to your fellow students. Way back in 2003 I wrote an entry about some Boston teenagers who were suspended from school for handing out candy canes. The candy canes themselves had a small note attached that explained the religious significance of the candy cane—they supposedly symbolize aspects of the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ—and the school freaked out, suspended the students, and then said it wasn’t because of the religious message on the candy, but because it was non-school related literature. The kids sued in Federal Court, but I never heard what the outcome was.
Closer to home here in Saginaw Michigan that same year an elementary student by the name of Joel Curry made some candy cane ornaments with the same religious message on them as part of a class project and was told by school officials to remove the message from the ornaments. It wasn’t long before a lawsuit was filed and today, some five years later, it’s about to be taken up by the Supreme Court:
The U.S. Supreme Court was asked on Monday to consider whether a fifth-grade student’s religious expression on a classroom project can be considered “offensive” and subject to censorship by school officials.
[…] Curry, who copied the message from an ornament at a Christian bookstore, is now a rising sophomore at Heritage High School in Saginaw, Mich.
“It’s unfortunate it has to be pushed this far,” said his father, Paul Curry. “When children step out in the world, they have to deal with different faiths and religions. It’s a good way for teachers to educate students as long as no one is proselytizing or pushing it down someone’s throat.”
[…] The new suit seeks reimbursement of legal fees and clarification of the district’s policy on religious speech.
“Penalizing Christian students for expressing their beliefs in the classroom is unacceptable under the Constitution,” said Jeff Shafer, the senior legal counsel with the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which petitioned the high court to hear the case.
“The First Amendment exists to protect private speakers, not to enable religious discrimination by government officials. The court of appeals’ unprecedented classification of student religious speech as an ‘offense’ worthy of censorship should be reversed.”
Much like the previous case in Boston, I’m going to have to side with the plaintiffs on this one. While school officials and teachers aren’t allowed to promote religious ideas in the classroom there’s nothing really preventing a student from making it part of his class project if he wishes to do so. The worst this kid could be accused of is plagiarism, copyright infringement (assuming whoever wrote the original story cares), and possibly being too stupid to realize the story he put on his ornaments was completely false. Beyond that I don’t see where there’s a problem with the project from a Constitutional viewpoint.
It seems like there really needs to be a national educational effort to teach school administrators and teachers what is and isn’t allowable in the classroom by staff and students. The news is filled with stories of either school officials proselytizing up a storm themselves or squelching any hint of religious discussion by everyone including the students out of fear of lawsuits. It really shouldn’t take a case like this going all the way to the Supreme Court to get folks educated on the do and don’ts on this issue.