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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, December 7, 2023 | Back issues
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Principals May Be Liable|for Nixing Religious Gifts

(CN) - The 5th Circuit refused to dismiss a lawsuit accusing two elementary school principals in Texas of violating the Constitution by barring students from swapping religious gifts, including Christian-themed candy-cane pens.

The federal appeals court in New Orleans rejected a bid by principals Lynn Swanson and Jackie Bomchill to have the religious discrimination claims against them dismissed on the basis of qualified immunity.

Swanson and Bomchill argued that the First Amendment does not apply to elementary school students, but the 5th Circuit found otherwise.

"[I]t has been clear for over half a century that the First Amendment protects elementary school students from religious-viewpoint discrimination," Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod wrote.

The families of four students in the Plano Independent School District sued after their children were barred from distributing religious-themed items as part of a goodie bag exchange during winter break parties.

Some of the banned goods included pens shaped like candy canes that came with a card explaining the "Legend of the Candy Cane." Some Christians believe the "J" shape of a candy cane stands for "Jesus" or the staff of the "good shepherd," and the three stripes symbolize Jesus' blood or the Trinity.

Another student was blocked from handing out pencils with the inscription, "Jesus is the reason for the season."

In an effort to streamline the appeals, the federal judge separated the claims against the school district from those against the principals.

The 5th Circuit found the bifurcation "commendable in concept" but "perverse in execution," because the lower court had ruled for the school district but not the principals.

A three-judge panel last December upheld the judge's ruling for the school district, while a different panel last week rejected the principals' motion to dismiss.

But the panel noted that its ruling was limited and "does not preclude the district court from granting qualified immunity in this case should the facts demonstrate that this is other than non-disruptive student-to-student speech."

This court is not tasked with determining whether [school officials] actually engaged in religious-viewpoint discrimination ... at this juncture," Judge Elrod wrote. "Nor is this court tasked with drawing the line at which student speech may be properly censored because of its potential to disrupt the classroom, or because of its potential to subvert the school's educational mission."

The appellate court added that the principals were free to raise other grounds for qualified immunity.

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