Students have the right to talk about Jesus, too!

By Manuel Quinto-Pozos
Staff Attorney

Last week we filed an amicus brief in support of students in the Plano school district who wanted to include religious messages in holiday gift bags.

Although the ACLU of Texas is not representing the students, we decided that the issue of students’ First Amendment rights is of such importance that we should file an amicus brief supporting the earlier decisions that require that this lawsuit be allowed to proceed.

The brief by the ACLU of Texas, which was written on our behalf by Ryan Pittman, Kurt Schwarz, and Paul Watler of the law firm Jackson Walker LLP, argues that a number of cases by the U.S. Supreme Court and Federal Courts of Appeals throughout the country have prohibited school administrators from censoring private student speech based on the content or the viewpoint that the speech contains, even when that speech is by students as young as elementary schoolchildren. Additionally, a long history of cases has made it clear that speech that is religious in nature can only be regulated for very compelling reasons. Therefore, the brief argues, it should have been clear to the school officials that what they were doing when they censored religious student speech implicated the students’ constitutional rights.

Here is a brief description of the facts and procedure of the case, as well as the arguments presented in our brief:

The plaintiffs claim that, between 2001 and 2004, several elementary school principals in the Plano Independent School District prevented students and parents from including religious messages in gift bags traditionally distributed by schoolchildren to other students during annual non-curricular “winter break” parties and during students’ “half-birthday” parties. The messages singled out for censorship were all religious and specifically Christian, and included pencils marked with the words “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so,” and a narrative explaining the Christian origin of candy canes. The plaintiffs and other children and parents were allowed to distribute gifts and non-religious messages during the same parties. Additionally, elementary school administrators prevented children from distributing, outside of instructional time, other religious materials, such as invitations to church plays and other events.

Represented by Kelly Shackelford, Jeffrey C. Mateer and Hiram Sasser III of Liberty Institute in Plano, the students and their parents sued the principals and the school district. Because of the way the case has navigated through the courts, the principals have not had to officially respond to the allegations or to justify their reasoning. Instead, they have said they are protected by “qualified immunity,” essentially arguing that either: (1) the actions that they are accused of committing do not amount to a constitutional violation, or (2) an official in their shoes would not have known at the time that those actions would be unconstitutional because such a conclusion was not “clearly established.” The trial court rejected the principals’ argument. The principals appealed the case to a panel of three judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which also rejected the argument. The principals then asked the entire court to reconsider, and the court agreed. Plaintiffs’ counsel also includes Wm. Charles Bundren of Frisco, TX; Clyde Moody Siebman and Larry Phillips of Siebman Reynolds Burg and Phillips LLP of Sherman, TX; and Paul D. Clement and Ashley C. Parrish of King & Spalding LLP of Washington, D.C.

Of course, the brief also recognizes that school administrators can act to address valid concerns, such as a reasonable anticipation that there will be a material and substantial disruption to the school, that the speech in question may be mistakenly attributed to the school, or that the students may be proselytizing to an unwilling captive audience. However, it’s too early in this lawsuit to tell what those concerns could have been, and our brief argues that the case should be allowed to proceed so that both the students and the officials can present all the evidence and arguments.

Prom Season!

Get out your corsages and sappy love songs… it’s prom season!

This might be the highlight of your year if you’re a cheerleader dating the star quarterback. But many students – especially LGBT students – feel left out. Teachers and administrators send the message that in order to attend prom, they have to leave who they are at the door.

Well, you don’t.

Gay students, do you know you are allowed – under federal law – to bring a same-sex date to prom? Two years ago, we helped an Alabama student bring her girlfriend after the school threatened to cancel the prom. Transgender students, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t come in if you’re not dressed “like a girl.” It’s your gender identity, and it’s your choice whether you want to wear a frilly dress or a fancy tux.

If your school is being bigoted, here are some tools to help. It’s 2011 and LGBT students shouldn’t have to sit out the prom, or stay in the shadows.

Two other ways you can stand up for equality in your school:

  1. Stop Anti-Gay Filtering. Did you know that many school computers block websites with any supportive LGBT messages? See if you can access sites like the Texas GSA Network, the Trevor Project, and from a school computer. Let us know what you find. Be a part of our Don’t Filter Me campaign.
  2. GSAs. Gay Straight Alliance clubs are one of the best ways for students to organize for a safer, more supportive school environment. If you or someone you know is trying to start a GSA, check out these tips. You may remember a few weeks ago we helped Nikki Peet at Flour Bluff High prevail when her school tried to shut down all student clubs rather than let a Gay Straight Alliance form. If you need backup, let us know.

Here’s to a happy, productive, safe end of the school year. Remember, it’s your prom and you can dance if you want to.

A Teacher’s Nightmare?

By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director

A religion professor who also is a retired Methodist Church elder has taken an exhaustive look at the Bible curriculum being taught in Lubbock public schools in a report titled, “A TEACHER’S NIGHTMARE? The Lubbock Independent School District’s Bible Course.”

A.W. Martin, Professor of Religion Emeritus at Oklahoma City University who now lives in Lubbock, has closely examined the curriculum and supplemental text, The Bible in History and Literature (Greensboro, NC: National Council of Bible Curriculum in Public Schools [NCBCPS], 2007).

Martin concludes that the course does not fulfill state law requirements that the role of the Bible in history and literature be taught without favoring one religion over another. Instead of teaching the Bible in “an objective and academic manner,” the NCBCPS curriculum “recommends a substantial number of resources that have little academic merit and represent a bias that has no place in a public school classroom.”

He cites a recent study by Amanda Colleen Brown in the Baylor Law Review. She concluded that the material from the NCBCPS fails to satisfy all three prongs of the “Lemon Test,” which courts use to judge the Constitutionality of government involvement with religion: A statute or practice “must have a secular legislative purpose,” its main “effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion,” and “it must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.”

Martin predicts that teachers will face serious difficulties in attempting to fulfill these objectives. He adds, “The teacher who takes the objectives seriously, even if the authors of the curriculum seem rather casual about them, will face at least a few sleepless hours while searching for supplementary materials and perhaps will have a few bad dreams if adequate resources cannot be easily found.”

He concludes the NCBCPS curriculum is a teacher’s nightmare and should cause bad dreams for school administrators and parents as well.

Hey Texas, What Century Is This?

By Frank Knaack
Policy and Advocacy Strategist

What year is it again? By the looks of the public health education program – the curriculum we teach school-age children – it surely can’t be 2011. You’d think, in 2011, it would simply be unacceptable for the state to teach kids that, “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense.”

What century are we living in? Not the one where same-sex couples can get married in six states, and engage in civil unions and domestic partnerships in a host of others. No, this can’t be the century where the American public has generally agreed to remove the scarlet letter from anyone who is not straight and agrees to abstain until marriage. The one where we realized, through a spate of teen suicides, that teaching kids that being gay is wrong does irreversible damage. Surely, this is not the same year of Lady Gaga’s hit single Born This Way, yet another voice in a growing body of evidence that being gay is not about people embracing a “lifestyle” at all, but simply being who they are.

No, it can’t even be 2003. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court – in Lawrence v. Texas – ruled against our law making “homosexual conduct” a crime. (Yes, yet another category where Texas can be proud to be last in this country, the last to undo our backwards, antiquated laws targeting gay people.) The Court found that, under the 14th Amendment, people have a right to engage in consensual sexual conduct in the privacy of their own homes without cops banging on their doors. The law was declared unconstitutional. But it is still on the books in Texas.

It’s despicable that the Legislature has yet to remove this anti-gay, unconstitutional law from the Penal Code. But there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Two bills were recently introduced that would bring us back into the 21st century. HB 604, sponsored by Representative Farrar and HB 2156, by Representative Coleman, would undo the law criminalizing homosexual conduct and would take the homophobic statements out of our public health education program.

Please, call your Representative today and demand that they support these bills. It’s time for Texas to show that it respects our Constitution and our individual liberty. Take action today!

Help end the School-to-Prison-Pipeline!

By Frank Knaack
Policy and Advocacy Strategist

Last week the Legislature held hearings on five bills that would help put an end to Texas’ school-to-prison-pipeline.

  • SB 1116 would amend the Texas Education Code to remove “disruption of classes” and “disruption of transportation” as grounds for school law enforcement officers to issue Class C criminal misdemeanors to students. These offenses have funneled children into the criminal justice system for engaging in minor, non-violent behavior such as chewing gum in class or using profanity.
  • SB 1489 would ensure that children are no longer criminally charged for unexcused absences, and instead are referred for a CINS offense. Under current law, school districts have the discretion to charge students for unexcused absences under the Family Code (a non-criminal “Conduct Indicating a Need for Supervision,” or CINS offense) or under the Education Code (“Failure to Attend School” a Class C misdemeanor). Children charged with a CINS offense receive more appropriate services designed to better address the child’s needs and better assist the child in getting back on track toward academic success.
  • HB 348 would require training for school resource officers (SROs) to ensure that they are prepared to police children and adolescents. Currently, and despite the obvious differences between apprehending adults on the street and ensuring the safety of children in a school, SROs are not required to have specific training to police children in schools.
  • HB 2158 would ban Tasers in elementary and junior high schools. An increasing amount of evidence suggests that Tasers may be a cause of death for a number of adult individuals who died after being shocked with a Taser. In addition to being potentially unsafe, Tasers are also unnecessary to ensure safety in public schools. The Texas Youth Commission and the two largest school districts in Texas (Dallas and Houston) prohibit the use of Tasers by their SROs.
  • HB 622 would provide clear guidelines to school officials to help ensure that students who don’t deserve to be expelled are not expelled. Under current law, children can be expelled from Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs (DAEP) to Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs (JJAEP) or to the street for “serious or persistent misbehavior”, an undefined offense. Current law results in punishments that disproportionately affect special-education and minority children and exacerbates Texas dropout crisis, further undermining Texas’ economic future.

Please … call or email your legislators and demand that they support these bills. Click here if you are not sure who represents you. Your voice can make the difference!