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Philadelphia-Do kindergarten or first-grade students have a First Amendment right to express their religious beliefs during a school-sponsored party by distributing gifts to fellow students that bear a religious message? The 3d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the answer is no if the school party was a “highly structured” event that had an educational component. “As a general matter, the elementary school classroom, especially for kindergartners and first graders, is not a place for student advocacy. To require a school to permit the promotion of a specific message would infringe upon a school’s legitimate area of control,” Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Anthony J. Scirica wrote. Walz v. Egg Harbor Township Board of Education. Controversial candy canes The decision by a unanimous three-judge panel affirmed the dismissal of a suit brought for a boy by his mother. He was prohibited from distributing pencils emblazoned with the message “Jesus [Loves] the Little Children,” using a heart for the word “loves.” When Daniel Walz was in first grade, he was also barred from distributing candy canes with a message attached that said the seasonal treat was designed to include “several symbols for the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ,” by bearing the shape of the letter J and a red-and-white color scheme signifying Christ’s purity and blood. Walz and his mother filed suit to challenge the school’s actions, arguing that even very young students have a First Amendment right to engage in religious speech with their peers. But Scirica found that “the school’s restrictions on this expression were designed to prevent proselytizing speech that, if permitted, would be at cross-purposes with its educational goal and could appear to bear the school’s seal of approval.” Scirica found that in First Amendment suits brought by elementary school students, “the age of the students bears an important inverse relationship to the degree and kind of control a school may exercise: As a general matter, the younger the students, the more control a school may exercise.” Scirica found that Daniel’s religious gifts were properly prohibited because he had attempted to distribute them “during classroom activities that had a clearly defined curricular purpose.”

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