TAMPA, Fla. — A federal court Thursday suspended two policies behind a Florida school’s ban on religious invitations while a lawsuit against the Hillsborough County School Board moves forward in court. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed the suit on behalf of a 4th-grade student prohibited from handing out Easter egg hunt invitations to fellow students during non-instructional time.
“Public schools should encourage, not shut down, the free exchange of ideas--and that certainly includes this Easter egg hunt invitation,” said Legal Counsel Matt Sharp. “To say that a simple invitation of this sort, offered from one student to another during non-instructional time, is somehow not allowed in America is alarming. The court was right to suspend the school’s policies because the law is clear: the First Amendment protects this type of expression.”
School officials contended that students “are not allowed to pass out fliers related to religious events or activities” because of two school board policies the lawsuit challenges as unconstitutional.
In an order affirming a magistrate judge’s recommendation, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, found that the student “has demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of her claim that the challenged School Board policies were unconstitutionally applied” to his speech. Because the ruling bars the district from enforcing the policies behind the ban, it declined as unnecessary a specific request to order the district to allow the student to distribute the invitations.
In March, the student and his mother developed simple invitations that he could hand out to fellow students during non-instructional time at Roland H. Lewis Elementary School in Temple Terrace for the Easter egg hunt that his mother helped organize in his neighborhood. At the event, children would participate in an egg hunt, play games, have snacks and candy, and hear the biblical story of Easter. The school’s principal, however, denied the student permission to distribute the invitations even though the school routinely allows other types of invitations, such as for birthday parties.
One of the district policies that the court ruled to be unconstitutional states that fliers distributed by students for religious events “may not contain a proselytizing message (i.e., promote the benefits of the specific religion).” The other policy the court suspended prohibits materials that “seek to establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect, or point of view over any other religious denomination, sect, or point of view.”
David Gibbs, one of nearly 2,200 allied attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, is serving as local counsel in the case, Gilio v. The School Board of Hillsborough County.
Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund) is an alliance-building legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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