DUNN, N.C. — A federal judge ordered a Sampson County high school to allow a student to hand out religious leaflets, saying its policy on distributing literature was potentially unconstitutional.
But the ruling, which partially granted a request for a preliminary injunction, didn't address whether Benjamin Arthurs' actions were disruptive or whether he was fairly suspended by Midway High School administrators.
Arthurs, now in 10th grade at the school, clashed with Midway High officials last spring over his desire to stage a one-person counterdemonstration to a gay-rights event.
A federal lawsuit filed on Arthurs' behalf by the Alliance Defense Fund, a national legal organization founded in part by Christian group Focus on the Family, said the youth was wrongfully suspended for disregarding a warning about expressing his Christian faith.
The lawsuit said Midway students were allowed to participate in the April 26 Day of Silence, an event promoted by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network. But, it said, Arthurs was denied permission to wear a Day of Truth shirt the following day and distribute cards outside of class time that presented a Christian viewpoint on homosexual behavior.
School officials say they allowed Arthurs to wear the shirt but told him not to pass out leaflets. Sampson County schools superintendent Stewart Hobbs said Arthurs was given a one-day in-school suspension for insubordination, but his mother decided to take out-of-school suspension.
The ruling yesterday by U.S. District Court Judge W. Earl Britt blocked the district from enforcing a policy that bans the distribution of all literature, including religious literature.
He said the policy was "constitutionally problematic" — that it was unclear whether it applied to material offered by a student as opposed to a non-school source, that it expressly barred religious material, and that it offered no clear avenue for appeal.
But Britt refused to order the district to create a written policy allowing religious clothing, noting that the existing dress code didn't bar religious clothing and that witnesses agreed that such clothing was allowed.
Britt also emphasized that his ruling didn't address other issues in dispute, such as the manner in which Britt distributed his literature, his interaction with other students or whether he disrupted the learning environment.
Hobbs was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment. A call to the office of school district attorney Ben Wright was not returned in time for publication.