9th Circuit Court of Appeals takes district to school on religious literature

Joseph Hills, who ran a Christian nonprofit organization called A Little Sonshine from Arizona, wanted to offer kids a summer camp. Students could take classes in camping, gymnastics, golf, Spanish, or other courses. Among the 19 offerings were two on the Bible: Bible Heroes and Bible Tales. A brochure describing the classes was clearly religious in nature, though it specified that they were "non-denominational in nature. All faiths are welcome." Here's what it said about Bible Tales:

Guys and Gals! 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? We think it is important to start as young as possible! We will Sing, Act, Dance and Relive some [of] the Greatest stories ever told! And maybe … we'll even have a surprise visit from Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, the award winning "VeggieTales" guys! (so much for the surprise!)

Here's the description of the Bible Heroes class:

Did you know … some of the greatest people who ever lived never had a home-run record? Never flew a plane or rode a train? Never starred in a motion picture (except Moses), and still do not have a Monday holiday named after them? It's true! Come, take an adventurous ride back into time with us, and learn about some ordinary people whose faith in GOD helped them accomplish extraordinary things! Remember Noah? Just how does a man build a boat that big? And Moses … he gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "You da Man!" We will explore Bible heroes from both the Old and New Testaments, and of course we will learn about our Greatest example JESUS. We will explore this through play acting, and puppetry, costuming, and set design, make-up and surely we will learn our lines! Come, join us in the Word, and learn what we mean by "role model."

When Hills started distributing his brochure to students in the Scottsdale Unified School District, some parents were outraged.

"I am a strong believer in God, but it's not anyone's place but my own to instill religious beliefs", Benita Sonabend, told The Arizona Republic in 2000 (the article isn't available online, but it is quoted in this Arizona American Atheist Newsletter).

Concerned about the parental reaction, district administrators ordered Hills to put a disclaimer on the brochure—then told him he couldn't distribute it at all unless he was willing to remove the descriptions of the Bible classes and images of a Bible, a cross, and a dove carrying an olive branch. He also had to change his group's name from Sonshine to Sunshine.

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The district also issued a new policy barring literature of a "commercial, political or religious nature."

Instead of heading back to Kinko's, Hills headed to the American Center for Law and Justice, filed suit, and lost.

Yesterday, however, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the school district violated the U.S. constitution. "Application of Supreme Court precedent requires the conclusion that the district discriminated against Hills on the basis of his religious viewpoint, and requires us to hold that the district violated Hills's First Amendment rights by denying him equal access to the District's schools," the court ruled.

But the court very specifically said that it wasn't saying that all religious material was acceptable. "The district cannot refuse to distribute literature advertising a program with underlying religious content where it distributes quite similar literature for secular summer camps, but it can refuse to distribute literature that itself contains proselytizing language," the judges said. In fact, they said, Hills's original pamphlet "was promotional not only of the [Bible Tales] class but of religion, and went beyond a description of the organization's general religious mission to directly exhort the reader to involve children in religious observance."

But rather than "parse each individual line," it sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton, who earlier said the district was right to ban the pamphlet completely.

ACLJ attorney Walter M. Weber tells the Associated Press that the decision "sends an important message about the constitutional rights of religious speakers. School districts cannot legally discriminate against the type of literature distributed at schools simply because that literature promotes an event that includes religious speech."

But school district attorney Mary Ellen Simonson says the "important message" is unclear: "It does leave districts in a very distressing quandary of having to decide what is or is not acceptable as religious material," she told The Arizona Republic.

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Politics and law:

  1. Why President Bush's "new" emphasis on religion is hardly new | A look back at the Clinton administration and religion (Marci Hamilton, Findlaw.com)

  2. W.'s Christian nation | How Bush promotes religion and erodes the separation of church and state (Chris Mooney, The American Prospect)

  3. Confuse secular and sacred and all you get is trouble | It's a problem in the U.S., Britain, and now here in New Zealand (Garth George, The New Zealand Herald)

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