Schools can’t stop people from distributing literature on campus touting summer camps just because they have a Christian viewpoint, the 9 th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
The judges said Scottsdale Unified School District officials were wrong to deny Joseph Hills permission to distribute his brochure for a camp that included classes on "Bible Heroes’’ and "Bible Tales.’’ The judges said he has a constitutional right of equal access to schools.
The court, however, refused to void the district’s entire policy — similar to policies statewide — which precludes the distribution or display of materials from outside the school of a "commercial, political or religious nature.’’
The judges said the policy can stand as long as it is applied in a "viewpoint neutral manner.’’
In this case, they said, that the camp was going to teach courses from a Christian perspective did not make the brochure a religious tract. But they said there are things in the material, like a reference to bringing children to Christ, that the district could demand be stricken before distribution on campus.
Attorney Mary Ellen Simonson, who represents the school district, said the ruling could create problems for school districts.
"Still very unclear is how far a brochure can go in promoting the religious event it is advertising,’’ she said. Without a clear line, said Simonson, schools are going to find themselves at continued risk of lawsuits.
Walter Weber, who sued on behalf of Hills for the American Center for Law and Justice, agreed the line is unclear.
"The hard part is how do you tell when they’re being unfair’’ in asking that material be edited, he said.
Hills was offering a nonprofit summer camp run by "A Little Sonshine from Arizona.’’ He sought to distribute a brochure to nine district elementary schools.
In the description of a Bible Tales course it stated, "Did you know that if a child does not come to the knowledge of JESUS CHRIST and learn of the importance of Bible reading by the age 12 chances are slim that they ever will in this life?’’
District officials said he would have to remove descriptions of the Bible classes, change the spelling of the camp to "Sunshine,’’ and omit graphics of the Bible and dove. He sued but his case was thrown out of court.
The appellate judges said the district has a policy of notifying students and parents of extracurricular activities or issues of general interest to students, including summer camps.
"Premising refusal of permission to advertise an event or class based on the religious nature of the event or class cannot be justified . . . where other similar groups can advertise events or classes similar except for their lack of a religious viewpoint.’’
The judges said the district remains free to exclude material aimed at converting students to a particular belief.
"The district cannot refuse to distribute literature advertising a program with underlying religious content where it distributes quite similar literature for secular summer camps,’’ the judges said.
"But it can refuse to distribute literature that itself contains proselytizing language,’’ the court continued. "The difference is subtle, but important.’’
For example, they said, the policy probably could not block advertising of a local Passover Seder or a Christmas performance of Handel’s Messiah "as these are extracurricular activities that would no doubt be of interest to many schoolchildren.’’
Simonson said the differences may be so difficult for district officials to ascertain that some may choose simply not to allow any outside brochures to be distributed.
Terry Locke, spokesman for the Chandler Unified School District, said he doesn’t anticipate the ruling will affect his district, though, because administrators consistently are restrictive of what can be promoted.
"I know there’s a file of everything that comes in so that we can look and make sure that we’re using the same guidelines," Locke said.
Judi Willis, spokeswoman with Mesa Unified School District, said her district also tries to limit materials distributed from outside the school.
Jon Brodsky, spokesman for the Tempe Elementary School District, said the district will consult with legal counsel whether any district policies need to be changed. Currently the district bans the distribution of nonschooloriginated material of a commercial, political or religious nature through students.
"We realize that it is sometimes difficult to discern from a community organization and a religious organization and we do try to pay attention to all materials that go out to our students and make the correct legal decision that also follows our policies," Brodsky said.