St. Paul, Minn., schools sued over religious-flier ban

By The Associated Press
04.14.07

ST. PAUL, Minn. — An evangelical group has sued St. Paul schools to overturn its ban on religious fliers, contending the First Amendment gives the group the same right as Boy Scout troops and Little League teams that distribute recruitment material at schools.

While administrators acknowledge the district's ban on materials of a sectarian nature, a school lawyer said the district's opposition to the St. Paul Area Evangelicals' flier is that it asks parents to take their children out of class each week.

The evangelical group runs Crossroads Ministries, which for 50 years has offered Bible classes to students. It relies on a Minnesota law that allows parents to release their children from school up to three hours a week for religious education.

Some schools in the district had allowed distribution in past years, according to the lawsuit, but the district now restricts access completely.

"St. Paul school district has chosen to allow nonschool groups to distribute information to parents announcing activities and other opportunities for students," said Jordan Lorence, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based Christian civil rights group that's representing the churches. "Once St. Paul schools opens up that means of flier distribution, the First Amendment requires them not to discriminate against religious groups and religious speech."

If the district has a problem allowing students to use in-school time for religious education, it should take up the issue with the state Legislature, Lorence said.

Jeff Lalla, attorney for the school district, says groups like the Boy Scouts or sports leagues are allowed to advertise on school grounds because their programs aren't held during school hours.

Just because state law allows students to miss school for religious instruction programs, "that doesn't mean we have to advertise that they're available," Lalla said.

A 2001 district policy stated that administrators can't use staff or school property "to assist in the distribution of religious release time information to students."

But First Amendment experts say the district could face problems if it's trying to limit what's distributed on school grounds based on content.

"If they are letting virtually everyone else who has programs for kids have access, there's a pretty good argument this is a designated forum and they can't discriminate against the religious group based on the content of the speech," said Teresa Nelson, legal counsel for Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.