What's Causing Violation of Christian Rights at Westfield High?

Attorney Believes It Is Not Hostility but Ignorance in this State of U.S. Constitution

Full Text of 'Offensive' Message

By Geraldine Hawkins
January 31, 2003

 

The attorney who has sued the Westfield schools for violation of the rights of students at Westfield High School believes it is ignorance of the Constitution in this state and not, in this case, hostility to the Christian faith.

Atty. Erik W. Stanley of Liberty Counsel in Orlando, who has brought suit in U.S. District Court on behalf of the students, tells MassNews that he sees one of two possibilities for the school's action.

The attorney who sued Westfield High School (shown above) for violating the rights of Christian students believes it was ignorance of the U.S. Constitution and not hostility which caused the problem.  

"I have never heard a story where a student distributed religious literature and it caused a disruption," Stanley tells MassNews. He believes that a policy such as the one in place at Westfield High School is, "Based on one of two things: 1) Ignorance of what the Constitution is saying. They think, 'If I allow this, I'm promoting a religion,' or 2) Downright hostility to the Christian faith."

Stanley believes the former is more likely to be the case at Westfield High School. "It is a misconceived notion of the law," he says.

The mother of one of the students agrees. "The school system has been very good to the kids," says Denise Sitler. "We don't have a problem with the school system as a whole."

The problems started when six Christian students at the school were suspended last month for defying both the principal and the superintendent of schools. The students then filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court claiming their right to free speech had been violated, and the news made headlines.

The Boston Globe quoted Superintendent of Schools Thomas Y. McDowell on Jan 1, saying: "We have progressive discipline, and these are not bad kids. We will do whatever the handbook says."

The school says in its Vision Statement: "We believe in developing an independent, well-rounded student who has a positive attitude about his/her future and has developed a lifelong love of learning. Our students will have a fundamental respect for all diversities that individuals bring to the educational community."

What Really Happened?

What really happened at the school?

Were the principal and the superintendent simply trying to maintain order in the school as the Globe reported, or was the message itself so noxious to them that they felt the need to muzzle the students? Did the authorities dig themselves into a hole so deep that they felt they had no choice but to insist on the rightness of a patently indefensible policy?

On December 19, the students distributed candy canes with folded cards attached containing notices for meetings of the Bible Club, a few versus of Scripture and the story of the candy cane, which emphasized that the white of the cane stands for purity and red for the blood of Christ. As a result, they were suspended on the grounds that "other students have a right to be protected from offensive messages."

The lawsuit was then started by Sharon Sitler and her brother Paul, and by Timothy Souza and his brother Daniel, Dustin Cooper and Stephen Grabowski. They named as defendants, Superintendent of Westfield Public Schools Thomas Y. McDowell and Westfield High School Principal Thomas W. Daley.

"They have said that they don't allow non-curricular fliers or papers to be handed out," Mrs. Sitler tells MassNews. "Shouldn't they ban T-shirts with offensive messages? They pass out things from the Boys' Club and the YMCA, and that's non-curricular. Fights are offensive to my kids, [but fights frequently occur at Westfield High School]. For years, I've put up with Halloween stuff - skeletons, witches - no big deal," she says, laughing.

"A man came to the school dressed up as Santa, [and the administration did not seem to mind]. Now, we've always made it clear to our kids that Santa isn't real, that Jesus is real, that Santa is a fun thing. It's okay, but I know it's offensive to Jehovah's Witnesses!"

Last month marks the third Christmas that the students have passed out the candy canes. In 2000, the candy was distributed with a specifically Christian message. At that time, Westfield had a different superintendent. "It was no problem under Mr. Shea," Sharon Sitler tells MassNews.

The next year, the Bible Club was told they could distribute the candy canes, but with a note that said only, "Happy Holidays." At that time, the students decided, "We'll tone it down this year," says Sharon. But the next year she says, "We wanted to get our full message out because we thought that was really important."

Sharon, 17, is co-leader of a Bible study with Stephen Grabowski. "We knew that if we did it, we were going to get suspended, probably. We decided, 'Let's just pray about it.' I know God is in control. We tried every way we could think of to okay it with the administration, but we just felt it was something God was telling us to do, and something our classmates needed to hear."

The school's policy is stated, with a remarkable lack of coherence, in the "Parent-Student Handbook" published by Westfield Public Schools. The relevant section reads:

"The freedoms of speech and the right to assemble are two principles upon which this country is based. These freedoms are subject to the limits of obscenity, defamation, fighting words, incitement or disruption as defined by the Massachusetts Department of Education. Responsible speech will be allowed at the proper location at the proper time, so as not to stop other people from entering classrooms, distributing literature during classes, or hold a demonstration [sic], so that it interferes with classes or homerooms in session. The use of symbolic expressions of publishing/distributing of material is subject to the same limitations as listed for freedom of speech."

Lawyers Are Contacted

Grabowski contacted Liberty Counsel, a civil liberties legal defense and education organization in Orlando, Florida, for advice and help. Erik W. Stanley, an attorney with Liberty Counsel, drafted the following letter on behalf of Stephen which was sent to Superintendent McDowell the day before the students had planned to distribute the candy canes.

"When [the students] requested permission to pass out the candy canes with the attachment, they were told that they could not do so because the information was offensive to those around them and would violate their right not to be exposed to offensive materials.

"As I am sure you are aware, the Supreme Court has held that students retain their right to freedom of speech and expression in the public schools. See Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969). The First Amendment does not allow for restrictions on free speech that are based on the content or viewpoint of the speech. To tell Stephen and the Bible Club that they cannot pass out the candy canes with the religious attachment singles out their speech for disfavored treatment based on the content or the viewpoint they are attempting to express. Such an action is unconstitutional."

Stanley closed his letter by asking McDowell for a response by the close of the business day, "so that we can resolve this issue and allow the students to peacefully exercise their right to free speech."

To which McDowell responded: "As Superintendent of Schools, I understand the rights of students with respect to speech and assembly on school premises. . We have allowed the Bible study group to meet on our premises after school hours with the same caveats as any other group who requests to use our facilities, thus allowing equal access to school grounds.

 
Superintendent Thomas Y. McDowell denies that Westfield High School discriminates against Christian students, but Atty. Erik W. Stanley replies that the administrator does not understand the U.S. Constitution if he truly believes that. Both McDowell and Principal Thomas W. Daley no longer answer telephone calls about the matter.

"We do not allow students to distribute non-school curriculum or activity related literature of any kind directly to other students on school grounds. We do not single out students based on the content of their message, in this or any other instance. Should a student or group of students simply wish to distribute candy canes with no message, it would be treated in the same manner, as would a handout advertising a sale at a local store.

"Be assured we are committed to affording students the rights and responsibilities granted them by the Constitution of the United States in a non-discriminatory manner. However, we have chosen to apply a reasonable restriction, as is our right as school officials, to the distribution of non-school related literature on school premises."

The next day, the students gave away around 450 canes, which is "nowhere near the number of people in our school, although some people probably got more than one," says Sharon. (There are 1,595 students enrolled at Westfield High School.) "The only people for me, personally, who refused a candy cane were those who didn't like peppermint."

Kids Were Suspended

When they came back to school after the winter break, the students were informed that they had been suspended, although the suspension is on "stay," meaning that the suspensions have not yet taken effect. That evening, Bill Sitler mentioned to his wife Denise, herself a full-time student pursuing a degree in music education at the University of Massachusetts, that their daughter Sharon "might be suspended." "What?!" was her reaction, she says.

The students were not egged on by their parents in their decision to defy the school authorities and distribute the candy canes. "We told them they needed to make up their own mind," says Mrs. Sitler.

Most of the students involved, including the Sitlers, attend the Westfield Evangelical Free Church. Mrs. Sitler tells MassNews that while the church is supportive, "There are some people in the church who are in disagreement [with the students' actions]. They were told to put 'Happy Holidays' or 'Season's Greetings' on the cards, but the kids did their research. They had lawyers write to them explaining the situation. There were kids who read the message only because they knew Sharon Sitler might be suspended!

"None of these kids are attention-seekers. They are very quiet, for the most part. They, for many years, have seen how things can be passed out in various venues, but anything Christian is squelched." In official literature, Westfield High School claims that its mission is "to facilitate and expedite the means to achieving our vision for the Westfield High School" by, among other things, "creating opportunity for exposure to diverse culture."

"Most of my teachers really respect me because I'm a really hard worker," Sharon tells MassNews.

Will It Stop Paul from Going to Air Force Academy?

Sharon's brother, Paul Sitler, has one ambition: to go to the United States Air Force Academy, but he may not get there if Academy officials see that he has a mark on his record for insubordination, says Atty. Stanley. "They look at the disciplinary records, and they may not accept him in a military academy if they see that he has been disciplined for insubordination."

There is hope for Paul, the attorney says, "[If the Academy can] get past the fact that the students were disciplined and look at the facts of the case. What the school did was unconstitutional."

"He knew what the ramifications were," says Paul's mother. "We had a long talk about it. He made his choice. It took him a long time to make that choice. That's why he didn't start passing [the candy canes] out until late in the day. He said: 'Mom, I only passed out five!'

"The Academy is something he has talked about since he was five years old. Paul flies giant-scale model airplanes and he has littler airplanes that he races with. That's all he has talked about, someday flying for the military."

The idea that Paul will not be admitted to the Air Force Academy is "a fear he has," Atty. Stanley tells MassNews. "They look at the disciplinary records. If there are four applicants from Massachusetts, and one has a mark on his record for insubordination, they will automatically look to the other three.

"Nobody even complained [about the candy distribution]. In fact, the Bible Club sent around a petition with the signatures of over 100 students [saying they had no objection to the actions of the Bible Club].

Matthew Staver, President and General Counsel at Liberty Counsel, tells MassNews that the students and their lawyers have two objectives: 1) to change the policy of the school because the policy is unconstitutional, and 2) to get the school to revoke the suspensions, because the consequences for the students could be "devastating."

"Both things are unconstitutional," says Atty. Staver, "to ban all religious messages because they could be 'offensive,' and to ban all non-curricular literature. The latter makes no sense from a commonsense standpoint, because it would mean banning all Valentine cards, birthday cards and notes. The administration would have to review the content and make censorship-type decisions.

Staver says that in the past, the policy has been either "enforced with a wink and a nod," or "half-enforced," as in the case of making the students settle for "Happy Holidays." The policy "requires the administration to micro-manage what the students want to say."

The attorney believes that the actions of Daley and McDowell are motivated either by "animosity to the message" of the students, or a feeling that "this is my school and I'll run it anyway I want to, and you're not going to tell me different."

"Kids have been reprimanded for using foul language," Sharon Sitler tells MassNews. "We've studied the Bible in our English classes, but they make it clear that we're studying it as a story," she says.

Sharon's grades are above average and she belongs to the National Honor Society, but the disciplinary action may cost her membership. On the other hand, she may emerge unscathed. "With the court case, it looks as though the suspension will be on hold until after I've graduated," she says.

"I'm definitely going to college," she tells MassNews, but she needs a scholarship "for money reasons." Sharon likes working with computers, but her main ambition is to write fiction and poetry.

"I've always been pretty strong in my faith, but when you're 8 or 9 or 10, it doesn't mean as much," she says. The turning point for her came on a mission trip a few years ago, during which she experienced something "real and special." She tells MassNews: "We stayed at a Christian orphanage in Mexico. Seeing how loving the kids were, how they relied on God for everything, made me want to take my faith for my own."

Mrs. Sitler says: "I honestly didn't think they would go through with [the suspensions]. It's so stupid."

"The policy has got to go," Atty. Staver tells MassNews, and Atty. Stanley concurs: "If the First Amendment doesn't protect this kind of peaceful free speech, it doesn't protect anything."

Sidebar:
Full Text of 'Offensive' Message

The following is the complete text of the Bible Club's "offensive" message. The outside of the card said: "Merry Christmas."

 

LIFE Bible Club
Every first and third Monday of every month
2:00 - 3:00
Love and
I insight
F or
E eternity

"And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ - to the glory and praise of God." - Philippians 1:9-11

According to legend there was a candy maker who wanted to make a candy that was a witness to Christ. The result was the candy cane. First of all, he used a hard candy because Christ is the Rock of Ages. This hard candy was shaped so that it would resemble a "J" for Jesus or a shepherd's staff. He made it white to represent the purity of Christ. Finally, a red stripe was added to represent the blood of Christ that was shed for the sins of the world and three thinner red stripes for the stripes he received on our behalf when the Roman soldiers whipped him. The flavor of the candy is peppermint, which is similar to hyssop. Hyssop is in the mint family and was used in the Old Testament for purification and sacrifice. Jesus is the pure Lamb of God, who came to be a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Too often the true meaning of Christmas is lost in commercialism and the stress of the holiday season. One thing that we can be thankful for is the salvation that God has given us through Jesus Christ, instead of worrying about what presents we are going to get. The gift of salvation is the greatest gift anyone could ever give us. It is better than getting a new car, and it is better than a gift certificate to the mall. And it's free!

Remember: It is not a prayer that saves you. It is trusting Jesus Christ that saves you. Prayer is simply how you tell God what you are doing. If you want to receive this awesome gift just be real with God and ask Him for it!

 

Dear God,

I know I am a sinner, and I know I should be punished. I believe that Christ died for me and took the punishment for my sins, and then rose from the dead three days after he died. I trust Jesus Christ alone as my savior. Thank you for your forgiveness and everlasting life that I know I now have.
In Jesus' name, Amen.

Now your whole life is new!



 




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