Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lawyer: Sheboygan elementary school erred in religious valentine flap | Sheboygan Press | sheboyganpress.com

  The Sheboygan Area School District erred when it confiscated a second-grader’s Valentine’s Day messages because they included a religious passage, according to a lawyer who is representing the child’s mother. David French, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, said James Madison Elementary School student Dexter Thielhelm should have been able to distribute valentines that contained candy, a note reading “Jesus Loves You” and the Biblical passage from John 3:16.

  French is representing Dexter’s mother, Melissa Wolf. “It’s pretty simple really,” French said. “A student does not shed his constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. The general rule is student free speech is protected absent disruption. The fact that that the school thinks somebody else might say something else that might disrupt the school is no reason to deprive students of constitutional liberties.”

  In contrast, Superintendent Joe Sheehan said the valentines aren’t a free speech issue at all. “A student could have that passage, the Bible, whatever they wanted in their own hands,” Sheehan said. “The issue was them distributing them to other people.” In a prepared written statement, Sheehan the school had to remove the message because other students and their parents hadn’t been given any notice that religious speech was being offered.
There was no prior notice to the school district or parents that a direct religious message would be presented to students,” the statement reads. “Accordingly, there was no opportunity to request parent authorization for students to accept or refuse to accept the message, which forced the district to take this action.
  Sheehan said that although the district doesn’t have a policy specifically relating to the distribution of religious materials in schools, it is working with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards to write one.

  French, however, said the concern that other second-grade parents didn’t have the opportunity to opt out is beside the point.
It was not disruptive speech,” French said. “The fact that it was religious is irrelevant. It’s not the state speaking, it’s the child speaking. Opt-outs in education typically happen when you’re talking about state-mandated educational initiatives, such as certain kinds of sex ed (because) messages that come from the state are inherently more coercive.