In 2000, Joseph Hills, president of a nonprofit educational corporation called A Little Sonshine from Arizona, decided to conduct a "Desert Mountain Summer Camp" for children and advertise the event by distributing a brochure to nine elementary schools within the school district. Of the 19 courses offered during the camp (such as camping, gymnastics, golf, and elementary Spanish), two were entitled "Bible Heroes" and "Bible Tales." The course description for the "Bible Tales" class stated, in part: "Did you know that if a child does not come to the knowledge of JESUS CHRIST and learn of the importance of Bible reading by age 12 chances are slim that they ever will in this life? We think it is important to start as young as possible!" Course descriptions were accompanied by the notation: "[T]hese classes are Non-denominational in nature. All Faiths are Welcome."
The brochure was initially approved by SUSD officials, but they stopped distribution after a parent complained about its religious nature. A few days later, officials allowed distribution to resume, provided that a disclaimer making clear that the school district neither endorsed nor sponsored Hills' activities was included. Officials then halted distribution once again, but allowed it to resume a week later. And a week after that, SUSD officials again withdrew permission, claiming that it was necessary to avoid a possible Establishment Clause violation. They advised Hills that the brochure would be acceptable if he removed the Bible classes, changed "Sonshine" to "Sunshine," omitted graphics of the Bible, cross, and dove, and included the disclaimer.
Hills rejected the offer and opted instead to contact the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a law firm specializing in constitutional law. In June 2000, the ACLJ filed suit in U.S. District Court, accusing the school district of unconstitutional religious discrimination. The suit was dismissed by the district court in November 2001, after which the ACLJ appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
On May 22nd of this year, a three-judge panel of the circuit court unanimously ruled that the school district's actions were not only discriminatory, but unconstitutional as well. Citing sundry U.S. Supreme Court precedents, the court held that "if the District permits the distribution of similar secular programs by other non-profit organizations, then the District cannot refuse to distribute literature advertising an off-campus summer program because it is taught from a Christian perspective." Therefore, "When the District denied Hills access to the school's limited public forum, it discriminated against him because of religious viewpoint in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment."
ACLJ senior litigation counsel Waiter Weber described the Ninth Circuit's decision as a "significant step in the ongoing struggle for equal rights for speakers with a religious message," since it signals school districts that they "cannot legally discriminate against the type of literature distributed at schools simply because that literature promotes an event that includes religious speech."
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|Title Annotation:||Making A Difference|
|Author:||Lee, Robert W.|
|Publication:||The New American|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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