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Fifth Circuit Rules on Students’ Religious Speech Rights

September 28th, 2011

This week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down an opinion for Morgan v. Swanson and upheld the First Amendment right of four Texas elementary students to hand out religious materials to their classmates.
The parents of the four Evangelical Christian children brought the lawsuit against the school’s principal and other school officials after the children were prevented, on several occasions, from handing out items like candy canes and pencils with religious messages attached. In bringing the lawsuit, the parents argued that the principal’s actions had interfered with the students’ First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion.
In an en banc hearing– where all the Circuit Court judges, rather than the usual 3-judge panel, hear and decide the case — the Fifth Circuit ruled that the First Amendment does give the students the right to pass out religious messages to their classmates and that the principal violated that right by “discriminating against student speech solely on the basis of religious viewpoint,” as Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod wrote.
The rest of the decision dealt with the concept of qualified immunity, which may shield several of the school’s officials from being held personally liable. To learn more about qualified immunity and absolute immunity, check out our page for the upcoming Supreme Court case Rehberg v. Paulk, which deals with the related issue of immunity for government officials.