U.S. Supreme Court declines to review two cases involving student distribution of religious materials in school
Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the U.S. Supreme Court has denied review in two suits involving Texas elementary school students handing out Christian-themed gifts during classroom parties. The students argued that the principals at their grade schools should be held personally liable for stifling the free-speech rights of children seeking to proselytize grade-school classmates. The students’ petition said, “All students, including elementary school students, have at the very least the basic First Amendment right to be free from discrimination against their private, non-curricular speech based solely upon its religious viewpoint.”
The case involved questions about when government officials can be sued as individuals for on-the-job conduct that violates someone’s constitutional rights. Under the qualified immunity standard, courts shield government employees from personal liability, except in cases where the law is so clear that reasonable people would know their actions were unconstitutional.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that, while the school principals were wrong to keep students from handing out religious material under these circumstances, they could not be sued. According to the Fifth Circuit, it was not clear under the law where the principals should have drawn the line between students’ rights to profess their faith and a public school’s obligation to avoid government support for a particular religion.
In their suit, the students and their parents said that, because other students were allowed to give gift bags containing secular items at in-school events, the principals violated the children’s free-speech rights by prohibiting only gifts with religious messages. “When the only thing that causes speech to be treated differently — one pencil allowed, the other forbidden, even outside the school and after school hours — is its religious viewpoint, the Constitution is violated,” charged their petition.
In response, the principals argued that the students incorrectly portrayed parts of the school day, such as classroom holiday parties, as forums for student-to-student communications. School personnel organize and supervise all aspects of a student’s time, they pointed out. Their brief in opposition to the petition stated: “Parents have traditionally entrusted public schools with the education of their children, but condition that trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposefully be used to advance views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.”
Source: Bloomberg Businessweek, 6/11/12, By Bob Drummond
[Editor's Note: As NSBA's Abbreviated U.S. Supreme Court Chart notes, the Fifth Circuit decision gave rise to two petitions, one by the students barred from distributing their gifts, Morgan v. Swanson, Docket No. 11-804, and Swanson v. Morgan, Docket No. 11-941. NSBA's chart on material distribution cases provides a compilation of federal court decisions regarding in-school distribution of religious materials and other materials from non-school entities.
In October 2011, Legal Clips summarized the decision of a divided Fifth Circuit sitting en banc (all active judges participating in consideration and decision of the case), in Morgan v. Swanson, which reversed a lower court’s decision denying two elementary school principals qualified immunity from a free speech suit brought by two students. A majority of the appellate court agreed that the law was not “clearly established” at the time the principals banned the students from distributing religious materials on school grounds. A separate majority held that such rights do extend to elementary school students under Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), rejecting the principals’ argument that elementary school students do not enjoy First Amendment free speech rights.]