Principal Could Bar ‘Candy Canes’ With Religious Message, Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — January 16, 2008 2 min read
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A school principal did not violate the First Amendment rights of a 5th grader when she barred him from distributing candy cane-shaped Christmas ornaments with an attached card promoting Christianity, a federal appeals court ruled today.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Detroit, ruled unanimously in Curry v. Hensinger to uphold qualified immunity for the principal of the Handley School in Saginaw, Mich.

The student, Joel Curry, had sought to sell the “candy canes,” which actually were pipe cleaners and beads shaped to look like the Christmas confection and meant as ornaments, at a school event called “Classroom City” in 2003. According to the opinion, the event was part of the 5th grade curriculum and involved the students developing and selling products at a three-day fair to other students. The products had to be approved by teachers in advance.

After winning approval of his product, Joel added a card to each ornament that conveyed Christian meanings to the candy cane, such as that the color red signified “God’s love that sent Jesus to give his life for us on the cross” and that the shape symbolized the staff used by sheperds.

After discovering the cards, school principal Irene Hensinger met with Joel’s mother and said the student would not be permitted to sell the candy canes with the cards at the Classroom City event because the event was considered instructional time and the cards’ religious content was inappropriate.

In a lawsuit backed by the Alliance Defense Fund, Joel’s parents sued the Saginaw district and the principal, alleging that Joel’s First Amendment free expression rights were violated. A federal district judge ruled in 2006 that the district and the principal had violated Joel’s First Amendment rights, but that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.

The 6th Circuit appeals court applied the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier as covering expressive activities that are part of the school curriculum, such as the Classroom City fair. (The ruling comes just a few days after the 20th anniversary of Hazelwood, which I discussed on the blog yesterday.)

“Joel’s candy cane with the religious card attached was not simply a personal religious observance, analogous to wearing a cross, or a T-shirt with a slogan,” the court said. “The school’s desire to avoid having its curricular event offend other children or their parents, and to avoid subjecting young children to an unsolicited religious promotional message that might conflict with what they are taught at home qualifies as a valid educational purpose.”

The Alliance Defense Fund notes that the U.S. Department of Justice had filed this brief supporting the student in the district court. It’s not clear whether the Bush administration had also filed a brief in the appeals court. It is not listed as having done so.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.