Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case on Student Religious Speech

By Mark Walsh — December 08, 2008 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear an appeal on behalf of a Michigan student who sought to distribute Christian messages to his fellow public school students as part of a school assignment.

The justices refused to review the appeal by the parents of Joel Curry, who was a 5th grader in 2003 when he sought to distribute candy-cane shaped Christmas ornaments as part of a class assignment on marketing a product. School officials approved his product, but the student then added a booklet to each ornament conveying Christian meanings about 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 a sheperd’s staff.

After discovering the cards, the principal of the Handley School in Saginaw, Mich., met with Joel’s mother and said the student would not be permitted to sell the candy canes with the cards at the student marketing event because the event was considered instructional time and the cards’ religious content was inappropriate.

Joel’s parents sued the Saginaw district and the principal, Irene Hensinger, 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.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled in January that the principal did not violate Joel’s First Amendment free speech rights by refusing to let him distribute the religious messages. (I blogged about the 6th Circuit decision here.)

“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 6th Circuit 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.”

In the Supreme Court appeal on behalf of Joel and his parents, Paul and Melanie Curry, the Alliance Defense Fund argued that “by treating genuine student speech as per se intolerable because of its religious viewpoint, the 6th Circuit has turned the First Amendment upside down.”

In a response brief, which the justices requested after the principal initially declined to file an answer to the appeal, lawyers for Hensinger argued that the case would make a poor one for deciding the religious speech rights of public school students and that the issue should be allowed to percolate in the lower courts.

The Supreme Court’s refusal without comment to hear the appeal is not a ruling on the merits of the case.

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