LIVERPOOL, N.Y. A fourth-grader claims a school district violated her rights to free speech and equal protection by refusing to allow her to distribute "personal statement" fliers to other students because they carried a religious message.
The lawsuit was filed Oct. 28 in U.S. District Court against the Liverpool Central School District by Nicole Martin and her daughter, Michaela Bloodgood, a fourth-grader at Nate Perry Elementary School.
"This is nothing less than viewpoint discrimination," said Mat Staver, an attorney and executive director of Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla.-based conservative legal group, which is representing Bloodgood.
"The idea that people would think the district was endorsing Michaela's statements is simply absurd. Schools do not endorse everything they allow students to distribute," Staver said.
Staver noted that religious speech is constitutionally protected in public schools. He said school officials had no right to single out Michaela's religious literature for disfavored treatment.
"She has every right to express her religious views in this way, and we intend to fight to protect her rights," Staver said.
Liverpool Superintendent Jan Matousek said she had not been informed of the lawsuit and therefore could not comment.
According to the 16-page lawsuit, Martin has tried three times to obtain permission from school district officials so that Michaela could pass out a homemade "personal statement" flier to other students, but was denied each time. Martin first began the effort when her daughter was in third-grade; the last time was in September.
The flier, about the size of a greeting card, starts 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." The flier then mentions five ways in which Jesus had come into her life.
Staver said Michaela never intended to distribute her flier during class time and that Martin's requests to school officials indicated that her daughter would hand them out only during "non-instructional time," such as on the bus before school, lunch, recess and after school. Or, as the lawsuit put it, a time when "students are free to talk to each other about any topic, including religion, draw pictures, pass notes, and do school work."
Additionally, the lawsuit noted that Michaela had received literature from other students at school, including literature concerning a YMCA basketball camp, Syracuse Children's Theater promotion of the show "Dragon Slayers" and the Camp Fire USA's summer camps.
According to the lawsuit, Liverpool officials reviewed the request but said Michaela could not distribute it because her flier was religious and that there was "a substantial probability" that other parents and students might misunderstand and presume that the district was "endorsing" the religious statements in the flier.