PLANO, Texas Four families filed a federal lawsuit yesterday accusing a 52,000-student school district north of Dallas of banning Christmas and religious expression from their children's classrooms.
A Plano school district attorney denied the claims and said school officials had recently decided to allow the distribution of all materials religious or otherwise at tomorrow's annual holiday parties. That would be a change from past years.
The U.S. Justice Department said today it was investigating the matter.
In a letter to the Plano-based religious rights law firm representing the families, Justice Department official Jeremiah Glassman said the preliminary inquiry concerned the district's "alleged refusal to permit students to distribute religious messages during parties and on school property."
"We stress that the Department has not made any determination about the merits of the allegations but is simply conducting a preliminary inquiry into the matter," Glassman wrote.
Glassman requested copies of all pleadings, affidavits, exhibits and other correspondence involved in the lawsuit.
"It is great to have a Justice Department that cares about religious freedom," said Hiram Sasser, director of litigation with Liberty Legal Institute, which represents the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Sherman charged that the district had engaged in "unconstitutional and illegal actions," ranging from prohibiting candy canes and pencils with religious messages to banning red-and-green napkins at holiday parties.
According to the 161-page petition, "continual efforts to ban Christmas" from Plano schools prompted the lawsuit. The lawsuit named the district and six employees including three elementary school principals as defendants.
"Our schools are not zones of religious censorship, and we have massive evidence of violation after violation after violation of the rights of both parents and their children in the school district," said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel for the Liberty Legal Institute.
A statement by Richard Abernathy, the school district's attorney, dismissed the lawsuit as "an effort by 'trial lawyers' to feed at the trough of the taxpayers' pockets, as opposed to truly addressing concerns through a non-litigious manner."
The district believes each student has a right to religious expression, Abernathy said, but added that "this area of the law is very complex."
"The Plano [school district] is proud of the uniquely diverse population of students enrolled in the district and their diverse religious beliefs," he said. He added that the district "will continue to pursue its mandate of 'teamwork for excellence' within its schools."
Doug Morgan, the father of 9-year-old Jonathan Morgan, said his family joined the lawsuit because Thomas Elementary School refused to let his son pass out "goody bags" last year with pens shaped like candy canes and an accompanying story, "The Legend of the Candy Cane."
The legend suggests that the candy cane was invented by a man who wanted to pay tribute to Jesus Christ. The candy maker chose hard candy "because Christ is the Rock of Ages" and shaped it like a "J" for Jesus, according to the story.
"It's been an awful feeling just sitting by helpless while our child has been discriminated against in [his] school," Morgan said. "It's something that no parent should endure."
The district also has prohibited students from distributing pencils with the message "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" and kept students from giving other students invitations to religious events while on school property, according to the lawsuit.
Plano schools spokeswoman Nancy Long previously has denied that district policy forbids students from passing out materials with religious messages. Rather, she has said each school has a central distribution area where such materials can be left for students to pick up at their own choosing.
However, Abernathy said the school district decided earlier this month to allow students and parents to hand out any materials at tomorrow's parties because the events will occur during non-instructional time. That decision was communicated to school administrators on Dec. 1, he said.
The plaintiffs' attorneys were surprised by Abernathy's statement, saying no one had informed students or parents of such a change.
"It appears they realize they are now in trouble and are thus trying to make a change," Shackelford said. "If that is true, that is great."
The plaintiffs also took issue with a letter sent home to parents from Jonathan Morgan's school on Dec. 6. Citing "the policy on distribution of school materials and non-school materials," the letters urged parents to limit party supplies to "approved items," including white plates and white napkins.
"The school officials have lost all common sense," Shackelford said of the color specification. "They can engage in their silly pretense that there is no such thing as Christmas all they want. But what they can't do is ban parents and students from celebrating the holidays and expressing themselves in accordance with their own faith."
Shackelford, who said he has represented Christians, Jews, Muslims and American Indians in religious liberty cases, said the lawsuit would benefit children of all faiths.
"A Muslim, a person of the Jewish faith, anybody should be allowed to live out their faith without having to be ashamed of it because the government is coercing their children that somehow there is something wrong with it," he said.