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On The Front Lines

Citing Separation of Church & State, New Jersey School Officials Censor Kindergartner's Gifts of Religious Candy Canes & Pencils

Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute Defend First Amendment Rights of New Jersey Student

Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on behalf of Dana Walz and her son Daniel, an elementary school student attending Egg Harbor Township Public Schools. Institute attorneys argue that school officials violated Daniel's First Amendment rights when they prohibited him from handing out pencils and candy canes bearing Christian messages to his classmates during holiday parties; school officials did allow Daniel's classmates to hand out non-religious items without restrictions. Earlier this year, the U.S. District Court for New Jersey ruled that school officials did not engage in viewpoint discrimination when they prevented Daniel from distributing gifts to his classmates. In requesting a full review of the case by the appeals court, Institute attorneys assert that the school district's actions and policies discriminate against Daniel on the basis of his religious beliefs, constitute hostility and denigration of religion in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The appeal is seeking reinstatement of Daniel's suit, as well as declaratory relief and a permanent injunction against school officials prohibiting children from handing out gifts of a religious nature.

In April 1998, during the Easter-Passover season, Daniel and his pre-kindergarten classmates attended a holiday party at school. The children brought in treats, goody bags, pencils and other small gifts to hand out during the party. Daniel handed out pencils that stated "Jesus loves the little children." On seeing the pencils, Daniel's teacher confiscated them from the children. Daniel's mother, Dana Walz, who was present in the classroom, immediately brought the matter to the attention of the school's principal. However, the principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent denied Daniel's request to hand out the pencils. Walz was then told that Daniel could hand out pencils only during non-instructional time. In December 1998, Daniel and his kindergarten classmates had a Christmas-Hanukkah party at school. Before the party, Walz contacted the school's attorney to obtain permission for Daniel to distribute candy canes with the story "The Candy Maker's Witness" attached to it. She was informed that Daniel could do so only outside the school building during non-instructional time. However, Daniel's classmates were permitted to hand out non-religious gifts during the party.

"Forcing Daniel to distribute his gifts outside the school building communicates official hostility toward his religious beliefs, which is intolerable in a pluralistic society," stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute.

The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.

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