SYRACUSE, N.Y. — A school district violated a fourth-grader's constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection by refusing to allow her to distribute "personal statement" fliers carrying a religious message, a federal judge has ruled.
The Liverpool Central School District in upstate New York based its restrictions on "fear or apprehension of disturbance, which is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression," Chief U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue wrote in a 46-page decision released on March 30.
"School officials had no right to silence Michaela's personal Christian testimony," attorney Mat Staver said yesterday.
Staver is executive director of Liberty Counsel, the Orlando, Fla.-based conservative legal group that represented Michaela Bloodgood and her mother, Nicole.
Liverpool school district lawyer Frank Miller said the school district was studying the decision and "reviewing its options."
According to the family's 2004 lawsuit, Nicole Bloodgood tried three times to get permission for Michaela to pass out the homemade fliers to other students at Nate Perry Elementary School. The flier, about the size of a greeting card, started out: "Hi! My name is Michaela and I would like to tell you about my life and how Jesus Christ gave me a new one."
Bloodgood's requests to school officials said that her daughter, now a sixth-grader, would hand them out only during "non-instructional time," such as on the bus, before school, lunch, recess and after school.
The lawsuit noted that Michaela had received literature from other students at school, including materials for a YMCA basketball camp, a Syracuse Children's Theater promotion and Camp Fire USA's summer camps.
Liverpool officials said at the time there was "a substantial probability" that other parents and students might misunderstand and presume the district endorsed the religious statements in the flier, according to the lawsuit.
"The court cannot say the danger that children would misperceive the endorsement of religion is any greater than the danger that they would perceive a hostility toward religion as a result of the district's denial," Mordue wrote in M.B. v. Liverpool Central School District.
Nicole Bloodgood said Mordue's decision vindicated her daughter and set a strong precedent for protecting students' free-speech rights.
"It's taken 2 ½ years to get justice ... but our prayers were answered," Bloodgood said.