Local school districts asked to remove policies restricting religious liberties
Friday, February 7, 2020 | 8:38 AM
Allegheny County school districts — including two in the North Hills and six others in the region — have been asked to change school policies that violate the constitutional right of students to freely express their religious beliefs, according to a nonprofit legal organization specializing in First Amendment issues.
Five of the school districts that received the Jan. 21 letters from the Independence Law Center in Harrisburg have agreed to revise their policies. The Independence Law Center’s mission, according to its website, is “… to defend human life at all stages and to defend the rights of the people to freely exercise their religion, as well as all the other First Amendment freedoms that depend on that first freedom. We protect and advance self-evident truth through advocacy in courts of law and courts of public opinion, and through legislative policy development and education.”
The Independence Law Center, which is affiliated with the Pennsylvania Family Institute, sent letters to Pine-Richland, Hampton, Wilkinsburg and Mt. Lebanon school districts in Allegheny County.
The Oil City, Neshannock, Big Beaver, Avella, Trinity and Slippery Rock school districts also were among the 55 districts in the state asked to change their policies to avoid legal action.
“Instead of equal treatment, many schools have treated students’ religious speech like dangerous asbestos — to be cordoned off and eliminated from our schools,” said Jeremy Samek, senior legal counsel for the Independence Law Center.
Pine-Richland, Oil City, Big Beaver, Avella and Neshannock school districts have taken steps to revise policies in student handbooks that prohibit students from discussing religion. The Independence Law Center asked school districts that wish to avoid being sued to inform it in writing by Feb. 21 that offending language has been removed and to provide the center with an electronic copy of revised student handbooks by April 1.
Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, an expert on constitutional issues, said school districts with policies prohibiting students from discussing religion but not other subjects should consider changing those policies.
“There’s no point in getting hauled into court,” he said. “There have been a number of cases addressing this matter. You simply cannot single out discussions about religion. If students are allowed to speak about politics or other subjects, then they are allowed to talk about religion.”
The center’s action was not prompted by complaints from students who said their rights were being violated, Samek said, but the absence of a complaint does not mean an unconstitutional policy should be allowed to stand.
“This is a case where students might not even know their rights are being violated,” Samek said. “Because the policies are coming from the school administration, most students will simply accept that the rules are legal and follow them.”
Last year, the Independence Law Center took the Mechanicsburg School District in Cumberland County to court after district officials rejected a request filed on behalf of students in the Christians in Action Club asking the district to stop prohibiting club members from handing out Bibles during lunch periods. The case ended when the district and the center entered into an agreement approved by a federal judge that allowed the students to hand out materials, including Bibles.
Samek said districts often create policies to regulate religious speech in schools as a way to prevent unwanted proselytizing or to protect students who might not want to engage in religious discussions. But districts already have the power to stop those things without infringing on the rights of others, he said.
“If a student complains that someone is talking to them about things they don’t want to discuss and refuses to stop when asked, that’s considered bullying, and there are rules in place to stop that,” he said. “But simply saying ‘You can’t have that conversation’ is not only the wrong thing to do, it’s illegal.”
The policies in Pine-Richland, Hampton and Wilkinsburg “violate students’ constitutional rights by effectively forbidding students from saying that their religious viewpoints are correct,” according to Samek.
“Student speech asserting that a political idea, environmental policy or football team is superior, however, is not prohibited by these schools,” Samek said. “Student speech shouldn’t be targeted simply because it involves religious rather than other topics.”
The policy at issue in Pine-Richland was included in the 2019-20 student handbook. It states that “student expression that violates the rights of others are prohibited.”
The policy contains a list of prohibited speech, which includes expressions that “seek to establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect or point of view.”
Pine-Richland officials said they changed the policy after being contacted by the Independence Law Center.
“Pine-Richland School District Policy No. 220, Student Expression/Distribution of Materials, is in compliance with applicable law,” district spokeswoman Rachel Hathhorn said. “Outdated language exists in a handbook and discipline code. That language will be revised to align with the existing Pine-Richland School District policy.”
The same language prohibiting religious expression is contained in the student handbook used in Hampton, which is reviewing the request from Independence Law Center that the policy be dropped.
“The (Hampton School) District is aware of the letter and the request for the change to the policy from the Independence Law Center,” said Shari Berg, a communications consultant for the district. “At this time, we are consulting with the district solicitor on this matter to determine an appropriate response.”
The Mt. Lebanon School District received a letter from the Independence Law Center because language in the student handbooks for Mellon Middle School and the high school contain prohibitions against “signs promoting any religion, theology or specific moral code.”
Samek said school districts are legally allowed to prohibit speech or the posting of signs that promotes illegal drug use; is lewd, vulgar or indecent speech; or substantially disrupts operations or interfere with the rights of others.”
But school officials cannot ban speech “out of fear that allowing religious speech will offend some members of the community.”
In the Supreme Court ruling cited in the letter to the school district, Samek noted that “fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.”
Mt. Lebanon spokeswoman Cissy Bowman said in an email that the district has “received the letter, as have many other districts throughout the state, and we are reviewing it.”
Avella will have a measure on this month’s school board meeting agenda to “make the necessary corrections,” said Superintendent Cyril Walther.
Neshannock Superintendent Terrance Meehan said the district is planning to take board action for the revision of the two policies cited in the letter from Independence Law Center.
Slippery Rock officials said they referred the matter to their district solicitor for review.
Wilkinsburg’s policy on student expression also uses the exact same language as the Pine-Richland and Hampton rules on religious speech.
But the letter to Wilkinsburg also asked that policies regulate the distribution of literature.
In addition to religious speech, district students and staff are forbidden from “advertising or promoting non-school organizations” and are only permitted to distribute “literature and materials directly related to school district activities or contribute significantly to district instructional programs.”
In its letter to the district, Samek cited a federal court ruling that states: “a variety of written materials — including ones created entirely by third-parties — are the personal expression of students when the student chooses to bring them to school to hand out to their classmates.
“The Supreme Court has ruled that the constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression do not end at the schoolhouse gate,” Samek said.
Officials with the Wilkinsburg and Trinity school districts did not return messages seeking comment about how they plan to address the issues raised by the Independence Law Center.