Q: I was hoping to hold a holiday party in my classroom before school lets out for winter break. Are there any rules pertaining to this type of celebration that I need to avoid breaking?
A. As you might have read in a recent ATPE News, ATPE filed an amicus brief in support of two educators who were being sued by parents. The educators, following district policy, prohibited elementary school students from passing out religious-themed candy, pencils and play tickets at school. The students’ parents sued the educators, claiming that the educators were liable for money damages for violating the students’ constitutional rights.
ATPE recently received the opinion of the court hearing the case. A majority of the court held, as ATPE had argued, that the educators were entitled to qualified immunity and should therefore not be subject to the lawsuit or damages because the law was not sufficiently clear for the educators to know that their actions violated the students’ rights. The decision is quite complicated—eight different judges wrote separate opinions, and they agreed on some issues but not others. It was a close call for these two educators. Lower courts had held that they were not immune; had the upper courts not found as they did, the educators would have had to face trial and possibly pay money damages to the parents. A minority of five of the judges in the appeal also held that the educators should have faced trial.
This case is important to all educators because any educator in the state might, without warning, face the same choices as the educators in this case. And with the holiday season here, the likelihood of this issue arising is greater. So what situation, exactly, led to the suit?
There were four separate incidents, all involving elementary students:
- At a school party, one student was prohibited from passing out candy cane-shaped pencils wrapped with a religious message that described a possible Christian religion-based explanation for the striped candy. Other students were allowed to pass out gifts without a religious message.
- At school, but not during class, a student was prohibited from passing out tickets to a play with a Christian narrative put on by a local church.
- At a “half-birthday” party in class, a student was prohibited from passing out a pencil inscribed with a religious message but was able to pass out gifts without a religious message.
- The same student was prohibited from passing out the pencils with a religious message while on the school grounds but after school hours.
The educators’ school district’s policy prohibited students from distributing any items with religious-themed messages. The policy was perhaps a well-intentioned effort to avoid controversy; allowing religious messages to be distributed in school could have been seen as a violation of the U.S. Constitution through the endorsement of a particular religion. This, too, is prohibited, which is why prayers are not allowed in school and why educators are prohibited from participating in “meet me at the flagpole” ceremonies. Whatever the reason for the policy, the court made it clear that elementary school students have First Amendment free speech and religious rights that cannot be unduly restricted.
Although the two educators in this case were granted immunity, that result might not hold true for the next educators facing a similar situation. This is because the court also ruled that some of the educators’ actions were unconstitutional.
The court first ruled, generally, that elementary school students do have First Amendment rights. Although there is still a lot of gray area as to what those rights are, exactly, educators now know that they must consider whether prohibiting an elementary school student’s expression could violate the law.
The court also ruled that prohibiting the elementary school student from distributing pencils while on school grounds but after school hours was a violation of the student’s First Amendment rights.
So, how can an educator looking to hold holiday parties avoid trouble with the law?
If confronted with a situation in which a student wants to distribute items with a religious theme, recognize that simply prohibiting all religious expression equally is not an acceptable legal option. Contact your administrator and, if possible, your district’s legal counsel immediately. As noted, even the parents bringing this suit agreed that the educators in this case were following district policy to the letter. That did not stop them from suing not only the district but also the individual educators. “Just following orders” is not a defense to you or your supervisor.
The approaching holidays are steeped in religious significance. Navigating the landscape is not impossible if done with knowledge and careful consideration.
The legal information provided on this website is for general purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for
individual legal advice or the provision of legal services. Accessing this information does not create an
attorney-client relationship. Individual legal situations vary greatly and readers should consult directly with an
attorney. Eligible ATPE members should contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department using our
online system, MLSIS.