A fifth-grade girl has sued the Pocono Mountain School District, claiming its policies on religious speech violated her First Amendment rights after her teacher and principal stopped her from giving classmates invitations to a church Christmas party.
The suit says because the district has policies specifically allowing the distribution of invitations to birthday parties, holiday parties, sports clubs, bowling leagues and other private and community events, its ban on invitations to a church event constitutes a discriminatory restriction on free speech.
The girl, identified in court papers only by the initials K.A., filed the suit through her father, Michael Ayers. She is represented by lawyers from the Alliance Defense Fund in suburban Atlanta, a group providing legal defense of religious freedom and values.
Alliance attorney Matt Sharp said the suit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, is intended to challenge district policies he said allow school officials to censor religious speech.
“The problem is that the district actually has a policy that says the students can’t distribute any material that advocates the supremacy of any religious view,” Sharp said. He said district officials have interpreted that to include any promotion of church activities.
Sharp declined to identify the church that K.A. and her family attend, although he did say it is an independent Christian church in Monroe County. The lawsuit describes K.A. as a “Bible-believing Christian” who is compelled to share her faith with her classmates by inviting them to church events.
A district spokeswoman said school officials would not comment on the lawsuit.
The girl, who lives in the Cresco section of Barrett Township and attends Barrett Elementary Center, tried to hand out fliers before class inviting students to a free Christmas party at her church, according to the lawsuit. Her teacher, Christina Sopko, stopped her, saying all handouts had to be approved by the principal, the lawsuit says.
She then submitted the handout to Principal Heidi Donohue for approval. Donohue later told the girl’s father, Ayers, that the school superintendent’s office had not approved the handouts.
When Ayers asked for more information about the reason the invitations were banned, Donohue directed him to a school district policy that bans advertising to students and faculty on school grounds, the suit says.
The suit notes that K.A.’s younger sister was permitted to distribute invitations to her classmates for her birthday party at a local pizzeria shortly after the Christmas party invitations were not allowed.
The suit also notes that the district’s policy barring material that “seeks to establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect or point of view” unconstitutionally restricts students’ speech by banning all expression on the subject of religion.
The district’s policies that restrict speech don’t serve a legitimate government interest, says the suit, also noting that courts have found such restrictions must be designed to avoid unnecessary constraints on speech.