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Evangelicals Use Courts to Fight Restrictions on Christmas Tidings

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2004; Page A01

Jonathan Morgan handed out candy canes with the story of Jesus to his fourth-grade classmates in Plano, Tex., on Friday. But it took a court order.

After years of legal assaults on municipal displays of Nativity scenes and Christmas observances in public schools, Christian groups are now mounting court challenges in the other direction.

Doug Morgan and son Jonathan, at their home in Plano, Tex., show the kind of items Jonathan gave out at his school's "Winter Break" party. (Juan Garcia -- Dallas Morning News Via AP)

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From Mustang, Okla., to Maplewood, N.J., they are filing or threatening lawsuits to win the inclusion of manger scenes in school plays, Christmas carols in school concerts and Christmas trees in public buildings.

"The pendulum has swung completely," said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the nonprofit First Amendment Center in Arlington. "There's a push-back by many conservative Christians, perhaps emboldened by the recent election and by the increasing presence of evangelical Christianity in the public arena. They're saying the secularization of our society and public schools has gone too far and become hostility to their religion."

Last year, a school administrator stopped Jonathan Morgan at the door to his classroom because the "goody bag" he had brought to a school party on the last day before Christmas vacation contained candy canes with a religious message attached. Titled "The Legend of the Candy Cane," it said the candy was shaped in a J for Jesus and bore a red stripe "to represent the blood Christ shed for the sins of the world."

This year, the 9-year-old and his evangelical Christian parents went straight to court. They were among four families who persuaded Judge Paul Brown, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, to issue a temporary restraining order on Thursday securing their children's right to hand out "religious viewpoint gifts" at school-sponsored holiday parties.

The family had some high-powered help. Two conservative nonprofit law firms, the Liberty Legal Institute and the Alliance Defense Fund, took the case free of charge. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice also wrote the Plano Independent School District last week to say it was investigating its "alleged refusal to permit students to distribute religious messages during school parties and on school property."

Kelly Shackelford, the Liberty Legal lawyer who argued the case, said in a telephone interview that Supreme Court decisions since 1969 clearly have established that students do not give up free-speech rights when they walk through the school door. Expressions of religious faith that would be unconstitutional coming from a teacher in a classroom are acceptable among students as long as they do not "materially and substantially disrupt" school operations, he said.

The Plano school district's lawyer, Richard Abernathy, maintained that school administrators can impose reasonable restrictions on the "time, place and manner" of students' religious speech.

"This area is predominantly white, and it's predominantly Christian. Frankly, it's pretty conservative Christian," he said. "We have to be careful, though, that those students who are Hindu or Islamic or Jewish don't have their rights trampled on."

Doug Morgan said his son was a victim of "political correctness spiraling out of control." He noted that the school had informed parents that only white paper plates and napkins -- no Christmas red and green -- would be allowed at the generic "Winter Break" party.

"They are so determined not to offend anyone," he said, "that we're being silenced and made to feel that what we want to share is not appropriate to share in a public environment."

That is an increasingly common holiday sentiment, said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal advocacy group founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson.

Twenty or 30 years ago, Sekulow said, the vast majority of lawsuits over Christmas displays were filed by secular groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, to block the placement of religious symbols on public property. Though there are still some gray areas, he said, those cases established fairly clear precedents about what does and does not violate the First Amendment's prohibition on government establishment of religion.

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