Barred from handing out Bibles, student sues school district

Monday, August 16, 1999

A Missouri high school student and her mother have asked a federal court to invalidate a district policy requiring approval of distribution of religious materials on school grounds.

On Aug. 12, Crystal Patterson and her mother Lisa sued the Northwest R-1 School District and the principal of Northwest Valley School in federal court for enforcing a school policy they claim violates Crystal's free-speech and religious-liberty rights. Crystal, now a student at the district's Northwest High School, wants to disseminate “Truth for Youth” Bibles during noninstructional times on school grounds.

Twice last May, Crystal attempted to hand out the Bibles at Northwest Valley School but was stopped by James Cashion, the school's principal. On May 18 and 25, Cashion told Crystal and her mother that the school superintendent had to approve the Bible distribution. On May 25, Cashion and two Jefferson County Sheriff's deputies were on hand to prevent Crystal from handing out the Bibles.

Represented by the Liberty Counsel, a religious-conservative legal group based in Orlando, Fla., 15-year-old Crystal argued in her lawsuit that her “sincerely held religious belief to peacefully share her faith verbally and through printed literature distribution” was hindered by the school district's policy.

The distribution policy states that the board of education “is legally responsible for monitoring the dissemination, posting, or use of special interest materials in or on district property,” and that “all printed materials must be approved instructional publications in order to be distributed on school property.” Further, the policy requires the superintendent to decide and approve of “instructional publications” for distribution.

According to the Liberty Counsel, the policy violates the separation of church and state because it grants “the Superintendent broad discretion to approve the literature and who may make religious-based decisions.” The group also claims Crystal's free exercise of religion had been subverted because “the policy is neither a neutral nor general law of applicability and had specifically and discriminatorily targeted religion and religious worship in churches.”

Mat Staver, president of the counsel, said the policy and actions of the Northwest school officials toward Crystal prevented her from practicing her religious beliefs, which require her to attempt to share those beliefs with other students. Staver said that last April's high school shooting in Colorado had prompted Crystal and her mother's interest in distributing the Bibles on campus.

“You would think that schools would welcome students who want to share a message of hope especially in light of the tragedy at Columbine High School,” Staver said in a prepared statement.

In 1995 at the behest of President Clinton, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley issued guidelines for student religious expression in the public schools. The guidelines were formed with the help of lawyers, academics and religious-liberty groups.

According to the guidelines, which were distributed to all the nation's public school districts, “students have a right to distribute religious literature to their schoolmates on the same terms as they are permitted to distribute other literature that is unrelated to school or curriculum or activities.” The guidelines, however, also state that “schools may impose the same reasonable time, place, and manner or other constitutional restrictions on distribution of religious literature as they do on nonschool literature generally, but they may not single out religious literature for special regulation.”

Tom Mickas, an attorney for the school district, said he could not yet respond to the Liberty Counsel's complaint.