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Case Page: Christians In Action Club v. Mechanicsburg Area School District

by | Feb 21, 2019 | Case | 0 comments


Student leaders of a Bible club filed a lawsuit against Mechanicsburg Area School District (MASD) over unconstitutional policies that violated students’ rights as well as their discriminatory practices that led to denying permission to offer Bibles during non-instructional times, specifically from a table during lunch.

When students enter a government school, they do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression, which includes offering literature to other students. However, Mechanicsburg Area School District (MASD) policies relegated student distribution of literature, quite literally, to outside the schoolhouse gate and outside of the school day.

Such an overbroad prohibition was not narrowly tailored to the school’s interest in maintaining order, and it did not provide ample alternatives for speech. While the school provided the potential for other spaces and times at the discretion of the principal, this did not solve the overbreadth but unconstitutionally vested the school with unbridled discretion to limit speech. The school also banned any student religious speech that claimed the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect or point of view, which constitutes illegal viewpoint discrimination. In addition to such facial unconstitutionality, MASD applied their policy to prohibit the students in the Christians in Action Club (Bible Club) from offering students Bibles from a table they were permitted to set up in the cafeteria during lunch time.

The students needed an injunction against these policies, facially and as applied. The Federal Court entered the preliminary injunction that protected the students’ rights on February 21, 2019.


What happened in Mechanicsburg Area School District?

Student leaders of the Christians in Action Club at MASD were denied permission by School Principal David Harris to offer Bibles to classmates and friends during lunch.

Were the students denied permission to distribute Bibles during the school day?

Yes. MASD Principal Harris informed the Bible club by email that they are “not permitted to handout Bibles during the school day.” Not only did Principal Harris tell these students that they could not offer students Bibles during the school day, but he also ordered that they not even hand out Bibles outside of the school day unless they were granted permission first from the school.

Here is Principal Harris’ email, sent to the Bible Club’s advisor, in response to the club’s request to share Bibles with other students:

Please inform him that he is not permitted to handout Bibles during the school day. Like other literature if he would like to request to distribute them outside of the school day, he may submit a request which will be reviewed in accordance with district policy and case law. At that time, a decision will be rendered. In addition to relevant case law, district policy #220 provides some guidelines. Please feel free to share this with [the student] or to review it with him as you see fit.

In fact, a school press release doubled-down on their position that the only time students could possibly give Bibles to fellow students is before or after school, not during the school day.

“[S]tudents do have the right to distribution of non-school materials prior to the start of the school day and after the end of the school day. . . .” (MASD statement, Friday, January 4, 2019)

What did the students want to do with the Bibles?

In November, student leaders of the Christians In Action Club requested permission to sit at a table during lunch, have a poster for students to sign and write something they’re thankful for, and to offer Bibles to those approaching the table. The school gave permission to set up the table and to have their poster for students to sign, but it denied permission to offer Bibles – not just during lunch but at any time during the school day.

Did the students ever attempt to hand out Bibles during lunch?

No. Due to the Principal denying permission to share Bibles during the school day, the students never distributed the Bibles they had purchased with their own money to be offered at their table in the lunchroom.

MASD says there is not a ban on the Bible. So what’s the problem?

There’s not a ban on Bibles. There is a ban, however, on offering Bibles to classmates at any time during the school day.

Has the Independence Law Center tried to collaborate with the school district?

Yes. ILC worked quietly behind the scenes to correct the recent violations and other violations of these students’ rights in the past, some of which are outlined in the Press Release and Letter dated December 31, 2018. During those prior events, ILC never disclosed the name of the school publicly, not even to reporters who asked. In this most recent violation, ILC sent the formal letter to the school administration on December 31, 2018. In light of past incidents, and because of the pattern of violations the school has engaged in, a press release about the incidents and providing notice of an upcoming school board meeting was sent out four days later. Despite requests for the school to change their policies and practices (on December 31st by letter, at the Board meeting on January 8th in person, and again by letter on January 10th), the school has consistently refused to change their unconstitutional policies and practices.

Timeline of events

September 2018: Christians in Action Club students submit a flyer to the High School principal requesting approval to post on the wall to advertise their meetings.

The principal orders the removal of the Bible verse in order for the flyer to be approved.

Students contact the Independence Law Center (ILC) for legal assistance. ILC informs Students of their rights so they could approach the principal again to reconsider. The principal denies it again.  ILC then informs the school of its unconstitutional actions and only after legal involvement does the school agree to cease applying its policy in this viewpoint discriminatory manner and to approve the Bible club’s flyer.

November 5: Students request permission to set up table with a poster for students to sign and write what they’re thankful for and to offer Bibles they purchase with their own money to those who approach them.

November 9: The request for the table and poster for students to sign is approved.  Principal Harris emails the club’s faculty advisor and declines permission to offer Bibles. The club’s faculty advisor forwards the response to the students reiterating that the request to distribute Bibles was denied.

The denial of permission stated that the students were not permitted to hand out Bibles at any time during the school day.

Club members went forward with the gratefulness table and poster, but did not distribute any Bibles because of the denial by the principal.

December 31: ILC contacted the district with a letter explaining the law, and asking the school to remedy their unconstitutional policy and actions.

January 3, 2019: After hearing nothing from the district and after the previous issues with the school, ILJ alerts the public with a press release to notify the public about an upcoming school board meeting.

January 4:  MASD issues a press release which doubled-down on their position that the only time students could possibly give Bibles to fellow students is before or after school.

“[S]tudents do have the right to distribution of non-school materials prior to the start of the school day and after the end of the school day. . . .” (MASD statement, Friday, January 4, 2019)

January 7: Deadline passes for the school district to contact the ILC to let them know the students would be permitted to offer Bibles during the school day at non-instructional times.

January 8: District issued a new news release.

January 8: ILC issued a response to the district’s release.

January 8: ILC and Club members address school board members at their monthly meeting requesting that they change their unconstitutional policies to protect all students’ right to offer written material to classmates during non-instructional times.

January 10: ILC sends letter to MASD to specifically request the school to answer the question of whether there are any times during the day students can offer literature to fellow students, specifically ILC asked:-

If what Mr. Harris said is not accurate, and students do in fact have the ability to distribute Bibles sometime during the school day, then let us know. We would love to hear from you when those times are, so the students can exercise their free speech rights to distribute Bibles to fellow students.

If what Mr. Harris said is accurate, and students are “not permitted to handout Bibles during the school day” then let us know that as well.

We look forward to hearing from you. Please let us know by Monday, January 14th at noon whether there are reasonable times for students to distribute Bibles during the school day to fellow students.”

January 14:  The district responds, refusing to answer the question, and instead simply restated that the students can re-apply to distribute non-school materials based on their policies.  However, those policies are unconstitutional.

January 30: Students are left with no more options, and a lawsuit is filed.

February 5: Students filed Motion for Preliminary Injunction to protect their rights.

February 7: Attorneys for parties attend status conference with Federal Judge.

February 21: Judge issues Preliminary Injunction Order, agreed to by the Parties, that eliminates the unconstitutional policies and that protects the free speech rights and free exercise of religion rights of the students.

See original press release for more information.