Religious freedom advocates are calling on the West Covina (California) Unified School District to adopt policy changes and issue a formal apology after an alleged incident involving bullying against a Christian student.
Advocates for Faith & Freedom, an Irvine-based nonprofit law firm, issued a letter Monday on behalf of Isaiah Martinez, a first grader at Merced Elementary School who took traditional candy canes as Christmas gifts for his teacher, Valerie Lu, and classmates on Dec. 13, 2013, according to attorney Robert Tyler.
Each candy cane came with a message attached that recited the history of the candy cane, including references to the candy as a symbol of Jesus Christ, according to the letter Matinez-Demand-Letter-1 dated Jan. 6. [Editor’s note: the history attached to the candy canes is, of course, inaccurate and laden with religious symbolism never part of the origins of the candy cane. Click here to read the actual history of the candy cane.]
Attorneys say when Martinez brought the candy canes to class, Lu took possession of the candy canes, and after conferring with school principal Gordon Pfitzer, told Martinez that â€œJesus is not allowed in schoolâ€.
Lu â€“ at the apparent direction of Pfitzer â€“ then ripped the candy cane message from each candy cane, threw the messages in the trash, and returned the candy canes back to Martinez for delivery to his classmates, according to attorneys.
In a statement, Tyler said the actions of the school district were â€œhostile and intimidatingâ€, and called on officials to adopt an official policy that expressly prohibits school officials â€“ including teachers â€“ from â€œadopting any action or from engaging in any expression that can reasonably be viewed by a religiously affiliated student as disapproval of the studentâ€™s religion or hostile toward the studentâ€™s religion.â€
â€œAdvocates for Faith & Freedom has experienced a surge in phone calls from students and their parents across the country who are victims of religiously motivated bullying; not bullying by other students, but bullying by teachers and school officials,â€ said Tyler. â€œThe pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that public schools are becoming a place of hostility toward Christian and other religiously-based worldviews.â€
In addition to policy changes, Tyler also called for the West Covina Unified School District to implement training for teachers and other school officials on the First Amendment, â€œparticularly as it relates to the rights of students to express themselves with religious viewpointsâ€.
There was no immediate reaction to the letter from school district officials.
A statement on the school districtâ€™s website (PDF) states school â€œprograms and activities shall be free from discrimination, including harassment, with respect to a studentâ€™s actual or perceived sex, ethnic group identification, race, national origin, religionâ€ and other characteristics.
This case is similar to another candy cane case from Plano, Texas, now more than a decade old, claiming that a student’s free speech rights were violated when he was not allowed to distribute candy canes with Christian messaging either.