Texas district accused of punishing students for bringing Bibles to school

Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Three Texas middle school students have sued a school district in federal court alleging their fundamental rights were violated when they were punished for having Christian texts on campus.

Represented by the Liberty Counsel, a socially conservative law firm based in Florida, Angela and Amber Harbison and Jeremy Pasket have accused officials with the Willis Independent School District of unconstitutionally punishing them for bringing their Bibles and Ten Commandment book covers to school.

During the 1999 fall semester, Angela, currently an eighth-grader at Lynn Lucas Middle School, and Amber, a seventh-grader at the school, were required to attend Saturday school sessions for unexcused absences. Angela and Amber had taken their Bibles to every session, but during the last session they were confronted by teacher Sara Flottman who told them, according to the Liberty Counsel’s 24-page complaint, that the Bibles were not permitted on campus. She then ordered the girls to the principal’s office.

According to the students’ lawsuit, which was filed May 18 in federal court, Flottman escorted the girls to the principal’s office, told them their Bibles were “garbage” and then dumped the religious texts in the principal’s trash can.

The lawsuit also alleges that when the girls’ mother spoke to school officials about Flottman’s actions, Principal Rayford McIlhaney told her that the Bibles were indeed not welcome on school grounds.

“Plaintiffs are Christians with sincerely held religious beliefs” and they should be able to “express their religious beliefs freely and openly in everyday life, including while at school,” the Liberty Counsel’s complaint states. “Defendants’ actions violate the Establishment Clause because Defendants have undertaken the task of reviewing the content of speech and banning any speech it deems excessively or inappropriately religious.”

Shortly after Angela and Amber were told to leave their Bibles at home, their friend Jeremy was told he would have to remove a Ten Commandments book cover from one of his texts. Angela and Amber had given Jeremy the book cover.

Mat Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, said the Willis school officials’ actions amounted to hostility toward religious beliefs and violated the students’ free-speech and religious-liberty rights.

“Students have a constitutional right to bring religious literature to school and read this literature during their free time,” Staver said. “Students also have the right to put a religious book cover on their own books.”

Staver said he hoped this lawsuit would “educate the educators” about students’ fundamental rights.

Judy Thornton, communications officer for the Willis Independent School District, said no comment could be given because the school district had not received notification or a copy of the lawsuit.

In 1995 and 1998, the Clinton administration issued a statement of principles about religious expression in the public schools. Several religious-liberty advocates and nonprofit educational groups including The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center endorsed the statement.

“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not prohibit purely private religious speech by students,” the guidelines state. “Students therefore have the same right to engage in individual or group prayer and religious discussion during the school day as they do to engage in comparable activity. For example, students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray before tests to the same extent they may engage in comparable nondisruptive activities.”