The Alliance Defending Freedom has sued a Pennsylvania school district in federal court on behalf of a first-grader who was prevented from distributing Valentine's Day cards to classmates because they contained notes that mentioned God and included a Bible verse.
, filed on April 7 in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, contended that the Nazareth Area School District violated the free-speech rights of the student when a school removed the notes from his valentines in February.
The student is identified as "J.A." in court papers, and the alliance also is suing on behalf of his parents, Donald and Ellen Abramo, who live in Upper Nazareth Township in the state's Lehigh Valley region. The student attends Floyd R. Shafer Elementary School in Nazareth.
The lawsuit contends that the district's policy banning the dissemination of religious materials in schools violates the Abramos' right to free speech. The Abramos, who have three other children, are Christians, the suit says.
"Public schools ought to encourage, not suppress, the free exchange of ideas, including those communicated through Valentine’s Day cards," said Matt Sharp, legal counsel for the alliance. "A Bible verse and a reference to God does not make such a card unconstitutional.
"Religious expression is just as protected by the First Amendment as other messages that students communicate," Sharp said.
According to the lawsuit, students were allowed to distribute cards in a classwide celebration of what the district now calls "Friendship Day." The event was scheduled for Feb. 14 but was delayed until Feb. 19 because of snow days and the Presidents' Day holiday.
Some of the cards handed out by other students that day contained "secular messages" and included "human skulls, guns and weapons," the suit says. Some of the cards are pictured in the lawsuit.
The Abramos originally prepared valentines with candy for the celebration, the local news website LehighValleyLive.com reports
, but they replaced the candy with the notes about the history of St. Valentine after learning that candy would not allowed to be distributed.
The note inside each valentine read: "St. Valentine was imprisoned and martyred for presiding over marriages and for spreading the news of God's love. In honor of St. Valentine's Day, I want you to know that God loves YOU!!!!"
It then quoted John 3:16 from the New Testament: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
St. Valentine was a third-century priest in Rome who was "censored, persecuted and eventually martyred for sharing his Christian faith," the lawsuit says.
The notes, also pictured in the lawsuit, were removed from J.A.'s valentines after his teacher told the school's principal about them — but a sibling in the third grade handed out the cards because a teacher did not notice the notes.
The principal, William Mudlock, told the Abramos that he ordered the notes removed from J.A.'s cards because they were "religious" and might be "offensive to someone," the lawsuit says.
He told the parents that the notes sought to “establish the supremacy” of his Christian faith over others, and that was prohibited by school district policy, according to court papers.
The policy says that Nazareth school officials can prohibit student expression that seeks "to establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect or point of view."
"To single out a faith-based message for censorship is exactly the type of hostility to religion that the First Amendment forbids," said Jeremy Tedesco, the alliance's senior legal counsel. "We hope the school district will revise its policies to respect the constitutionally protected free speech of its students and make ongoing litigation unnecessary."
Founded in 1994, the Alliance Defending Freedom is based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
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