Michael Leal, a student at Everett’s Cascade High School, had been suspended three times for passing out Christian literature and preaching on campus. The school worried his activities would offend other students.
Last month, Leal filed a federal lawsuit against Everett Public Schools, saying that his suspension violates his First Amendment right to free speech. He is being represented by the California-based Pacific Justice Institute, which has encouraged students to "reclaim their schools" through evangelizing. The organization became involved after Leal’s first suspension.
“Unfortunately, this school district has responded in a very draconian way,” said PJI President Brad Dacus. “When a student is excited about their faith, the government has no business, ever, particularly in a public school to outright censor and silence a student because of his faith and expressing that faith.”
The school district, however, said that Leal was causing a “significant disruption.”
“We have policies that respect the First Amendment issues, but when you are disruptive and you’re not doing it in accordance with the policies, we have a right to stop it and to control it,” said Michael Patterson, attorney for Everett Public Schools.
Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., said Leal’s case is not unique.
“We have quite a few examples right now across the country of kids speaking up, saying what they believe and schools trying to deal with it,” Haynes said.
“We’re actually doing much better than we were 10, 20 years ago. I think most public schools understand now that students do have religious liberty rights and they do need to be protected. Teachers can talk about religion when they are teaching it academically in the classroom.”
Haynes said organizations like the PJI are working across the country, advising students on their rights and pushing for more religious speech in public schools.
There are also organizations pushing for less religious speech. Haynes said it’s a product of the country’s ongoing culture wars, but the multitude of cases isn’t actually changing the law – because the role of religious speech in public schools is already clear.
Students may express their religious views in homework, artwork and class discussions – as long as they fulfill the requirements of the assignment and their comments are relevant.
They may also evangelize wherever other students can say whatever they like. Still, there are gray areas. Schools can restrict speech that is substantially disruptive, but that is subjective, Haynes said. For example, Leal was using an amplifier to preach at a bonfire on the high-school campus. Haynes said some people might consider this a significant disruption, but others might disagree. This is where adjudication comes in.
Leal’s case is unique in that the school district has sought to restrict his written speech as well.
“When he’s giving out materials to other students in the school, he may have the right to do that, and we know that, and the school probably knows that too,” Haynes said. But the school wants to restrict which materials he hands out.
“They want it, as I understand it, to be materials that he produced himself rather than tracts or booklets that he gets from somewhere else,” he said. “I’m not sure they can do that, but they can test that.”
Haynes said most of these cases settle out of court. He said much of the controversy could be avoided if schools were more proactive in creating clear policies regarding religious speech, inviting community members for input so that there is precedent when issues arise.
“Unless that local policy is there, unless the local community supports it, we’re going to keep having these fights,” he said. “As they say, the time to buy the fire engine is before the fire.”
Finally, he said that how we treat religion in schools is especially important, because it reflects how we treat religion as a society.
“The public school is really the model for the public square,” he said. “If we can’t get religion right in the public schools, we’re not going to get it right in the public square.”