Seven Westfield High School students are now preparing an appeal to the board of education challenging the suspensions handed down when they returned to school last week.
Administrators did not approve the students' request to pass out the candy and an accompanying religious message. But the students decided to ignore that order and distribute about 450 candy canes, just as they had done in the past.
The problems they faced are not unique and happen quite often at elementary and high schools across the country, according to several civil-liberties groups that track the incidents. Around holidays like Easter and Christmas, and other celebrations such as Valentine's Day and Halloween, they tend to increase.
Rarely do the cases end up in court, but one dispute involving a New Jersey student reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. It was argued Thursday before a three-judge panel.
The Rutherford Institute, a group that often assists students in religious-related disputes, came to the aid of Daniel Walz and his mother Dana after an April 1998 incident when Daniel was told he could not pass out pencils with the religious message "Jesus loves the little children" attached.
The Egg Harbor Township School District won the first round when a federal judge tossed out the case last February.
Steven H. Aden, Rutherford's chief litigation counsel, said the arguments before the appeals court went well, but it was difficult to predict how the judges would rule. A decision is expected sometime in the spring.
Aden said that too often, Christians are targeted for their religious views, as was the case at Egg Harbor's H. Russell Swift Elementary School.
"If they allow kids to pass out gifts to each other and express themselves in a social setting like a party, then they cannot ferret out religious expression for censorship," Aden said. "They should treat everyone the same and not be concerned that some misguided parent might think they're promoting religion because a child chooses to hand out gifts with a religious message."
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a brief in support of Walz, calling on the court to seize the opportunity to clarify students' free-speech rights, which have been interpreted differently by federal appeals courts.
Derek Gaubatz, the group's legal counsel, said the Walz case, like others that have been heard by courts across the country, is based primarily on viewpoint discrimination.
"Students with religious backgrounds should not have their views relegated to this type of second-class status within the public school system," Gaubatz said. "They are expressing views that are part of who they are, and [these views] reflect the identity of the culture we live in. If you start excluding religion from that equation, public schools are then not reflecting the reality of our culture."
Egg Harbor's superintendent, Philip W. Heery, and the school's attorney, Armando V. Riccio, did not return phone calls.
Although a decision by the judges of the Third Circuit would not impact the Westfield, Mass., students, the Bible Club's leader said he believes the law is on their side.
High school junior Stephen Grabowski said he had been active with the Bible Club for two years before becoming a co-leader of the group this year. He said the club has always informed administrators about their plans to distribute the candy canes.
Last year, they were told to tone down the religious message, but in 2000, administrators did not object to the club's plans.
"Everyone needs to know about Jesus Christ, and everyone needs to have the opportunity to come to grips with the fact that he is truth," Grabowski said. "We're not going to stop preaching. The message needs to get out, and people need to hear it. This [incident] opened up a lot of discussions with people about what we were about and why we believe this."
Grabowski said the seven students who passed out the candy canes were set to serve a one-day internal suspension last week. Two of their parents intervened, however, and six of the seven students had their punishments temporarily postponed while they appeal.
Liberty Counsel attorney Erik Stanley, who contacted the school district on behalf of the students, would not rule out suing the school depending how the students fare in their appeal.
"This is an unconstitutional policy, and the decision to discipline them based on this policy is unconstitutional," Stanley said. "They were really just exercising their right to free speech."
Westfield Public Schools Superintendent Thomas McDowell did not return phone calls, but he wrote in a letter to Stanley that the students' punishments had nothing to do with religion. He said the school has a strict policy that prohibits distribution of any materials on school grounds.
Last month, a similar dispute over religious-themed candy canes was resolved. When faced with a lawsuit, a Reno, Nev., high school relented and allowed Bible Club members to distribute about 1,400 candy canes with the message "Jesus Loves You" before Christmas.
Religious-Themed Candy Dispute Resolved in Nevada (Dec. 13, 2002)
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