DENVER The parents of an elementary school pupil who was told not to distribute invitations asking classmates to join a Bible club sued the school district in federal court this week, claiming their right to religious freedom had been violated.
The lawsuit, filed Dec. 15, says the Gilpin County RE-1 School District violated constitutional rights protecting free speech and religion. Robert and Patricia Unruh say the school barred their daughter from distributing the invitations solely on the basis of their religious content.
The suit said Gilpin Elementary School Principal Deb Benitez told the Unruhs she had received several complaints from parents and that the invitations had caused a disturbance.
Benitez said she could not comment on the lawsuit.
Superintendent Ken Ladouceur, who like Benitez is named in the suit, said he had not seen it and did not know details of the case. But he said principals were authorized to make decisions to prevent disturbances in their schools.
"The principal's responsible for the peaceful environment of the school, so yes, it is the principal's call," Ladouceur said.
The lawsuit also accuses the school of discriminating against Patricia Unruh by repeatedly denying her requests to advertise a summer Bible camp that is separate from the club. Patricia Unruh asked to distribute flyers for students to take home to their parents.
Other groups, such as the Girl Scouts and Little League, are allowed to advertise in such a way, the suit says.
The superintendent said that though he doesn't know details of this specific case, district policy would allow flyers for an extracurricular Bible school to be distributed along with material about other activities.
"The policy was crafted to ensure all groups are treated the same way, religious or otherwise," Ladouceur said.
The suit seeks unspecified damages and asks a federal judge to force the school to reverse its decisions concerning Patricia Unruh and her fifth-grade daughter. The girl's father is a newsman for the Associated Press in Denver.
The Unruhs established "God's Girlz" last year as a family-run social group for girls in fifth and sixth grade, the lawsuit says. The club allowed girls to participate in service projects, parties and other events while learning about the Bible.
The summer Bible group and God's Girlz pay rent to meet in a building on school district grounds but are not affiliated with the district, the suit says. The school is in Black Hawk, in the Rockies foothills west of Denver.
The Unruhs say in the lawsuit that their daughter distributed invitations to students before school and during her lunch hour on two days in September. About a week later, Benitez told the Unruhs several parents had complained and said the invitations had caused a disturbance, according to the suit.
The Unruhs' attorneys did not return phone messages on Dec. 15. Two of the three firms representing the family are associated with the Alliance Defense Fund, which defends religious freedoms.