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Monday, October 21, 2019

Christianity club settles suit with Mechanicsburg School District over distribution of Bibles on school grounds

Lawsuits

By Nicholas Malfitano | May 30, 2019


HARRISBURG – A Christianity-focused student group in Mechanicsburg has settled claims with the school district, superintendent and high school principal it sued, initially claiming its free speech was violated when it was denied the opportunity to distribute literature and Bibles in a school building.

Christians In Action Club first filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on Jan. 30 versus the Mechanicsburg Area School District (MASD), Superintendent Mark Leidy and Principal David Harris.

The club had raised the issue of Administrative Regulation 220-0, which required students to distribute non-school literature on public sidewalks bordering school property 30 minutes before the start of school or 30 minutes after the end of it.

The students, members of a Bible-based organization called the Christians In Action Club at Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School, believed this regulation was “overbroad and unconstitutionally grants unbridled discretion to Principal David Harris to deny or approve any student distribution of written materials.”

Furthermore, the students argued Harris discriminated against them under this exact premise on more than one occasion, when, at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, he first denied a request by the club to post flyers advertising the time and place of their meetings due to a Bible verse, Mark 16:15, being displayed on the flyers – and secondly, denied a request by the club to distribute Bibles to their classmates during lunch periods.

The plaintiffs said the rights they are seeking, which were extended to a number of other secular student organizations, were denied to them on the basis of their religion.

“Not only does MASD prohibit students from offering literature to other students unless approved, without any written guidelines to restrain the unbridled discretion of the principal, but it also completely prohibits students from expressions that ‘seek to establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect or point of view,” the lawsuit stated.

“MASD prohibited the students in the Bible Club from offering the Bible to their classmates during the school day’s non-instructional time pursuant to its policies and practice. Plaintiffs challenge the district’s policies, Administrative Regulations, and Student Handbook, both facially and as applied. The District’s censorship of plaintiffs’ religious speech, and the Policies on which that censorship was based, violate the First and Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the Pennsylvania Public School Code 22 Pa. Code Section 12.9.”

All parties involved in the litigation had declined to comment to the Pennsylvania Record.

However, U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III issued a preliminary injunction on Feb. 21 and stipulated that the District would no longer be able to enforce Administrative Regulation 220-0.

“Defendants are enjoined from enforcing Administrative Regulation 220-0 and the Student Handbook to prohibit the distribution of literature until a new Administrative Regulation and/or an application for the distribution of materials is promulgated to replace old Administrative Regulation 220-0 and provided to the school community,” Jones stated.

“The parties will work collaboratively to draft a new Administrative Regulation that shall take the place of the enjoined Administrative Regulation 220-0. The new Administrative Regulation shall be drafted within 45 days of the entry of the stipulated order.”

Therefore, on April 29, it was announced that both Christians In Action and the District had collaborated on a new iteration of Administrative Regulation 220-0

“Pursuant to this Court’s Feb. 21, 2019 order, plaintiffs and defendant worked together to rewrite Administrative Regulation 220-0, which has since been promulgated by defendant. Defendant has revised and permanently deleted the Student Handbook’s prohibition of speech that “seek[s] to establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect or point of view,” according to the stipulation.

“Furthermore, the District agreed to the payment of attorney’s fees and costs within 30 days of the entry of a final order in the case, in an amount that has been separately agreed to by the parties; and all other claims and defenses in this matter have been resolved.”

The final order was entered by Jones on April 29.

The plaintiffs were represented by Curtis M. Schube, Jeremy L. Samek and Randall L. Wenger of Independence Law Center, in Harrisburg.

The defendants were represented by Gareth D. Pahowka and Gregory W. Bair II of Stock & Leader, in York.

U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania case 1:19-cv-00172

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nick.malfitano@therecordinc.com

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