A middleshooler penalized for a religious-based project he did in fifth grade may soon see his day at the U.S. Supreme Court, marking the final step in a case that could dramatically impact the religious rights of public school students.
Alliance Defense Fund attorneys for Michigan student, Joel Curry, made the request of the country's highest court, Monday, after a three-judge panel ruled in January that his project from five years ago was "offensive" and worthy of censorship.
"Penalizing Christian students for expressing their beliefs in the classroom is unacceptable under the Constitution," ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeff Shafer said. "The First Amendment exists to protect private speakers, not to enable religious discrimination by government officials."
A 'Creative' Project
In 2003, Curry made candy cane ornaments to hand out at a yearly school event called "Classroom City," where students sold their creative projects to others.
The then fifth grader said he wanted to show the religious meaning behind his candy and attached a card to them with the statement, "Hard candy: Reminds us that Jesus is like a 'rock,' strong and dependable. The color red: Is for God's love that sent Jesus to give his life for us on the cross. The stripes: Remind us of Jesus' suffering - his crown of thorns, the wounds in his hands and feet; and the cross on which he died."
Curry's teacher told him to get permission from the principal, Irene Hensinger, before giving the candy canes to students. Hensinger then consulted another administrator and told the boy he could not distribute the candy with the religious card attached. Curry then sold the candy canes by themselves.
Later in 2004, Curry and his parents filed suit against the Saginaw School District for religious discrimination and won.
"Classroom City was designed to be a mock city that resembled a town's market place where free speech traditionally is allowed," the judge wrote. "The school made the choice not to limit the products that students could make outside of a few established guidelines. The exercise and its objectives did not preclude incorporating religion."
Still, an appeals court overturned the ruling this year, citing that the project was part of a school-sponsored event and could, thus, be censored.
ADF attorneys hope the Supreme Court will see the significance of the case to religious freedom in schools, and agree to hear it.
"Automatically classifying religious speech as offensive runs counter to settled constitutional precedent," said Shafer. "We hope the Supreme Court will agree to review Joel's case and resolve this important question, which could potentially affect thousands of public school students."
Candy Canes and other Christian-themed holiday items have been the center of several legal battles across the U.S. In 2004, a Texas school district banned students from writing "Merry Christmas" on greeting cards exchanged in school, and a New Jersey district prevented students from listening to Christmas music.
The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision on Curry's case by November.
To read the document submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court by the Alliance Defense Fund, click here.
Sources: Alliance Defense Fund, Student Press Law Center, Baptist Press