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Crime & Courts

Lawsuit: Students should be able to distribute religious literature

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 12:49 AM
TAMPA -

An Easter egg hunt is at the center of a federal lawsuit over whether Hillsborough schools should be required to let children distribute religious literature on campus.

The mother of a Temple Terrace fifth grader is asking a federal court to order the Hillsborough Board of Education to let her son give Christian material to other pupils at Roland H. Lewis Elementary School.

U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Jenkins is scheduled to hear arguments today from lawyers over whether she should issue a temporary injunction against the school district.

The legal confrontation started in March when the then-fourth-grade son of Kimberly Gilio – identified in court papers by the initials J.G. – asked a substitute teacher for permission to pass out invitations to a church-organized Easter egg hunt during "non-instructional" time at school.

The invitations said the reason for the event was "To have fun and learn the true meaning of Easter."

The substitute teacher gave the invitations to the principal, Kristin Tonelli, who returned them with a note: "We are not allowed to pass out fliers related to religious events or activities. Thank you for your understanding."

Gilio sued, employing the services of Christian legal organizations: David Gibbs of the Christian Law Association and lawyers from the Alliance Defending Freedom.

The lawsuit alleges that school board policies banning the distribution of proselytizing literature violate the boy's constitutional rights, especially when children are allowed to pass out invitations to birthday parties.

The lawsuit describes J.G. as "a Bible-believing Christian who desires to share his faith and beliefs with other students and to invite them to religious events and activities." The boy's "sincerely held religious beliefs compel him to share his faith and beliefs with his friends and classmates at school."

The school board responded that the principal recognized that allowing the boy to distribute the invitation to all his classmates would interfere with the rights of the other children and could upset parents "because those students may have contrary religious beliefs and would not expect the classroom to be used to advocate or promote the benefit of a particular religion."

The board argued in court pleadings that J.G.'s classmates might have felt peer pressure to accept the invitations, even if their message was contrary to the children's religious beliefs. "The young students may also have felt coercive pressure believing the distribution bore the imprimatur of the school because the classroom was not generally used to distribute other promotional messages."

The district maintains it does not prohibit all religious expression among students, but just the promotion of one religion over another. "People of reasonable intelligence would be able to understand that proselytizing a religious belief on students in an attempt to convert them to that belief differs than personal observation of religion or religious speech," wrote school board attorney Thomas Gonzalez in court pleadings.

Matt Sharp, a lawyer from Alliance Defending Freedom, said this type of case is not unusual. "We … unfortunately see this pop up all too often where students can't express their faith in school," Sharp said. "This is a common thing, but fortunately the courts have commonly held that schools can't restrict this."

He cited a 1994 Polk County case in which a Tampa federal judge ruled that the school district there violated a 12-year-old's First Amendment rights to free speech when it tried to stop Amber Johnson-Loehner from passing out religious materials on school grounds before and after school at Lime Street Elementary in Lakeland. In that incident, the girl was trying to distribute invitations to a church event being held as an alternative to Halloween trick or treating.

Sharp said the Alliance Defending Freedom is a Christian law firm that provides free legal services focusing on three areas – religious liberty for students, pro-life cases and "protecting the traditional definition of marriage."


esilvestrini@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7837

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