Principals sued for wringing Christmas out of school parties

By Pat Murphy

The Daily Record Newswire

Leave it to hypersensitive school officials to spoil the good times of the Christmas season. For a change, it's nice to see the courts stepping in and telling the zealots that they've gone too far.

The message has been driven home in a civil rights lawsuit against two principals of elementary schools in the Plano Independent School District in Texas. Lynn Swanson is the principal at the Thomas Elementary School. Jackie Bomchill is the principal of Rasor Elementary.

Each year, every elementary class in the school district hosts a ''winter break'' party at which students are allowed to exchange ''goodie bags'' containing gifts.

For Swanson and Bomchill, evidently it's not enough that ''Christmas'' has been cleansed from the name of the parties. No, these principals are alleged true believers, who according to some parents have taken it upon themselves to ensure that not a single religious reference makes it past the classroom door.

For example, at the December 2001 winter break parties at Thomas Elementary, school officials allegedly searched goodie bags for anything with a religious taint.

That's how Michaela Wade was nabbed. For her classmates, Michaela had brought pencils inscribed with the phrase ''Jesus is the Reason for the Season.''

The school's guardians pulled Michaela's pencils from her gift bags and Swanson allegedly was soon on the phone telling Michaela's mother about how unacceptable such gifts are.

In 2003, third-grader Jonathan Morgan was another unfortunate caught in the Thomas Elementary sting operation.

Jonathan had the audacity to bring candy-cane-shaped pens as gifts for his classmates. The problem with Jonathan's candy-cane pens was that they came with laminated cards attached that told the story of the supposed Christian origin of candy canes.

Upon hearing of the insidious candy-cane pens, Swanson allegedly had Jonathan and his father intercepted at the classroom door. There, they were told that Jonathan could leave his goodie bags at the school library or distribute them off school property, but could not bring them into the classroom.

While Swanson was policing the winter celebrations at her school, Bomchill was allegedly taking similar steps over at Rasor Elementary. Student Stephanie Versher claims that Bomchill stopped her from handing out free tickets to a Christian drama.

On another occasion, Bomchill allegedly threatened to have Stephanie kicked out of school for handing out pencils inscribed with the phrase ''Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.''

The parents of Jonathan Morgan, Stephanie Versher and Michaela Wade eventually grew tired of the secularist crusade in the schools, so they decided to do what good parents do: they sued.

The parents alleged that Swanson and Bomchill had engaged in religious viewpoint discrimination in violation of their children's First Amendment rights.

Swanson and Bomchill claimed immunity, arguing that the First Amendment does not apply to elementary school students.

Recently, the 5th Circuit disabused Swanson and Bomchill of that notion. (The court withdrew an earlier opinion in the case.)

''In light of the overwhelming precedent and persuasive authority to the contrary, it is unsurprising that [Swanson and Bomchill] can point to no case stating that elementary school students are without protection under the First Amendment from religious-viewpoint discrimination, absent evidence of disruption to the classroom or subversion of educational mission. ...

''[The principals] thus had fair warning that the suppression of student-to-student distribution of literature on the basis of religious viewpoint is unlawful under the First Amendment with respect to elementary school students. Therefore, [they] are not entitled to qualified immunity,'' the court said. (Morgan v. Swanson)

So Swanson and Bomchill's last resort is show that the children were disruptive in handing out their religious trinkets. The guess here is that the students' parents would welcome the attempt, and with the case in this posture, the parties are heading towards a settlement.

Published: Mon, Dec 13, 2010


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