In the waning days of the 2013 Christmas season came the sad story of a six year old first grader who had his candy cane gifts for his classmates taken by his school teacher before he could distribute them. The problem? Attached to each candy cane was a religious themed message.
The teacher took possession of the candy canes once she saw that a religious message was attached. Then, after conferring with the school principal, the teacher told six year old student Isaiah Martinez that “Jesus is not allowed in school” and ripped the message from each candy cane and threw them in the trash while he watched.
She then handed the candy canes back to Isaiah to hand out to his classmates, which he nervously did, fearing he was in trouble for trying to attempting to spread “good tidings” with the class.
The story made national headlines. The issue, Isaiah’s parents and lawyers point out, is free speech. The issue, school officials say, is separation of Church and State. The gifts were from Isaiah, not the school.
Advocates reportedly chose to take on the case, explaining that schools often have a “misunderstanding of the separation between church and state.”
The group sent a letter to the West Covina Unified School District demanding that the school apologize for how Isaiah was treated and adopt a policy prohibiting school officials from discriminating against or intimidating Christian and other religiously-affiliated students.
After conducting an investigation, the school district decided that their actions were warranted, and Superintendent Debra Kaplan released a statement to Los Angeles-area news outlets defending the teacher’s actions. “At the present time, we do not have any reason to believe that the teacher or any other district employee had any intention other than to maintain an appropriate degree of religious neutrality in the classroom and to communicate this to the child in an age-appropriate manner,” Kaplan stated In response, advocates appealed to the school board requesting once again that Isaiah be allowed to hand out the candy canes and that the school board revise its policies.
When the school board also failed to adopt a new policy, Advocates appealed to the California Department of Education but the CDE has not yet responded.
“We shouldn’t be raising our kids to be afraid of expressing their Christian faith,” attorney Robert Tyler told NBC.
“The school has neglected to correct its actions, and after exhausting all options to avoid a lawsuit we were left with no choice but to file a complaint in federal court. We are asking the court to protect Isaiah’s rights and the rights of others like him from having their religious speech censored. Students do not shed their First Amendment rights just because they enter into a classroom.”
This case is very similar to another candy cane case that took place in Plano, Texas more than a decade ago. That case has languished in the courts all these years with various judicial branches split on free speech in schools.