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Court Strikes Down Policy Censoring Fifth-grader’s Speech and Religious Expression

Alliance Defending Freedom
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Pocono Mountain School District censored Katie Ayers when she wanted to pass out invitations to her church’s Christmas party.

“Come and see.” These are the words of Jesus in John 1:39. It’s a simple invitation that Jesus gives to those who would become his first disciples.

An invitation like this is one of the most hospitable ways to share one’s faith. There’s no pressure at all, and it leaves the decision completely up to the person you’re speaking with.

Ten-year-old Katie Ayers did the same thing when she wanted to hand out invitations to her church’s Christmas party to her fellow fifth-graders.

But Pocono Mountain School District saw her invitations differently.

While her school allowed students to pass out invitations for Halloween parties, birthday parties, and Valentine’s Day dances without getting permission, Katie was censored from handing out invitations to her church’s Christmas party because of its religious content.

This was a clear violation of Katie’s First Amendment rights. A public school district like Pocono Mountain School District has no right to give preferential treatment to one student’s private speech or expression based on whether it is religious or not.

Let’s look at the details of this case.

 

Ten-year-old Katie Ayers was stopped by her school district from handing out fliers for her church’s Christmas party.
Ten-year-old Katie Ayers was stopped by her school district from handing out fliers for her church's Christmas party.

 

Who is Katie Ayers?

From a young age, Katie’s faith has been one of the most important things in her life. She remembers her parents being transformed from a life of partying, drinking, and drugs when they both became Christians. They wanted to tell everyone about how Jesus had changed their lives, and Katie followed in their footsteps.

In 2010, when she was in fifth grade, Katie wanted to invite her classmates to a Christmas party for kids that her church was hosting. There would be fun activities like face painting, ping-pong, foosball, cup-stacking, prizes, puppets, music, and snacks—as well as a message about Jesus.

So Katie thought that she would print out invitations from her computer at home and give them to her classmates. She didn’t give it a second thought. She had seen other classmates hand out invitations for birthday parties, Halloween parties, and even Valentine’s Day dances.

But when she began to hand out her invitations, her teacher stopped her, saying that she had to get permission from the principal first.

Confused, but not wanting to cause trouble, Katie obliged. After some back and forth between Katie’s parents, the principal, and the school superintendent, Katie’s request to distribute her invitations was denied as a violation of school district policies.

That’s when Katie and her parents sought the help of Alliance Defending Freedom.

 

K.A. v. Pocono Mountain School District

In March 2011, ADF filed a complaint on behalf of Katie Ayers against Pocono Mountain School District for violating her First Amendment rights. The school could not treat her speech or expression worse than that of other students simply because it was religious. That kind of censorship is unconstitutional.

Thankfully, the district court agreed, and upon appeal, so did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

 

Case timeline

  • December 2010: Katie Ayers sought to distribute invitations to her church’s Christmas party for kids but was denied by her school.
  • March 2011: ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Katie for violations of her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and expression.
  • October 2011: The district court issued a preliminary injunction against Pocono Mountain School District that prohibited it from stopping students from distributing fliers that invite other students to church parties and other religious events. The court also halted enforcement of district policies that prohibit any student speech considered to be promoting Christianity. The school district filed a motion for reconsideration, which was denied in March 2012. The school then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.
  • March 2013: The 3rd Circuit unanimously affirmed the district court’s decision that found two Pocono Mountain School District policies that had been used to censor Katie unconstitutional.

 

Outcome

The 3rd Circuit unanimously affirmed that Katie’s rights had been violated and that the policies that the school district had used to censor Katie were unconstitutional.

“Public schools should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. “Those ideas include a 5th-grader’s invitations to a religious event. The 3rd Circuit was correct in striking down the school district’s unconstitutional ban.”

“America’s public schools should recognize the constitutionally protected freedom of students who wish to hand out these kinds of fliers,” said ADF Senior Counsel Matt Sharp. “A flier cannot be banned just because some element of religious faith is a part of it. On the contrary, the First Amendment specifically protects religious speech.”

Later in 2013, ADF used this ruling and sent letters to hundreds of school districts across the State of Pennsylvania, explaining that their speech policies fell short of the 3rd Circuit’s ruling. Katie’s victory eventually impacted over 500 school districts across the state, protecting the rights of nearly 2 million students to share their faith at school.

 

The bottom line

Students have a First Amendment right to distribute materials at school, even if the subject matter is religious in nature. The Constitution prohibits school officials from using their own unbridled discretion in banning speech they disagree with.

 

Learn more about Katie Ayers’ case:

 

Watch:

Hear Katie tell her story:

Alliance Defending Freedom
Alliance Defending Freedom
Non-profit organization
ADF is the world's largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, marriage and family, and parental rights.