A federal judge approved a stipulation agreement Thursday between the Independence Law Center and Mechanicsburg Area School District, with the district agreeing to allow students to distribute materials, including Bibles, during lunchtime.
The agreement, filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and co-signed by lawyers for both the ILC and the district, will see the district and the plaintiffs “work collaboratively” to re-write the school policies that ILC claimed were at the root of the Bible-sharing controversy earlier this year.
The agreement constitutes a preliminary injunction and partial order to dismiss, thus forestalling a hearing and associated discovery phase in the suit, which had been scheduled for next month.
The parties have 60 days to file any additional pleadings prior to a final order to dispense with the case.
ILC filed its original complaint last month, alleging First Amendment violations regarding the district’s prohibition on students, including the high school’s Bible club, from distributing outside materials or literature at lunchtime.
As part of the agreement, the district is barred from enforcing certain school policies that are referred to under section 220 of its code and regulations, as well as related parts of the district’s student handbooks.
The crux of the ILC’s January filing was that the district’s framework for students distributing outside materials, religious or not, “contains overbroad and unconstitutional time and place restrictions that impose a complete ban on literature distribution during the school day.”
Under the agreement, the district will have 45 days to work with the plaintiffs to create a new regulation, during which time the district is “enjoined from enforcing Policy 220 in such a way as to prohibit plaintiffs from distributing literature in the cafeteria during lunch time.”
The ILC is representing the Christians in Action Club, Mechanicsburg’s high school Bible study group.
In the meantime, “the parties shall work collaboratively to draft and the defendants shall implement an application for the distribution of materials in the interim, which shall be a temporary substitute for the enjoined Administrative Regulation 220-0,” according to the agreement.
The agreement also involves the district striking the clause in its student handbooks, in reference to section 220, that student expression may be prohibited if it “seek[s] to establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect or point of view.”
The issue arises from an alleged November incident in which students from the club requested to set up a table at lunch for an event called “Gratefulness Week.”
The event was one “where fellow students could come up to the table to sign a poster stating what they are grateful for; the Bible Club students would then offer them a Bible,” the ILC wrote in its January brief.
According to the ILC, Mechanicsburg High School Principal David Harris emailed the Christians in Action Club adviser, informing them that “like other literature if [the student] would like to request to distribute them outside of the school day, he may submit a request which will be reviewed in accordance with district policy and case law.”
District policy, according to a copy of district Administrative Regulation 220-0, filed with ILC’s brief, restricted such distribution to 30 minutes before and after school, and students may only hand out materials on the public sidewalks bordering school property, not within the building’s walkways or lobbies.
Exceptions were permitted “only upon receipt of written permission from the building principal or a designee,” according to the district regulation.
Such rules “are facially unconstitutional in that, absent an arbitrary exception granted by the principal, they completely prohibit any distribution in school or even outside of school during school hours,” the ILC contended.
While the ILC is affiliated with the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a conservative Christian advocacy group, the suit’s complaint is not limited specifically to Bibles or Christian opinion.
The now-stricken language in the student handbooks, the ILC argued, effectively grants the district the self-declared power to control any instance in which a student wishes to express that a particular viewpoint is correct, a power that does not meet the First Amendment test of being narrowly tailored.
“The unbridled discretion given to building principals at MASD invites arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement and allows them to grant favorable times and places to favored speech and to relegate speech they do not favor to outside of the school day on the public sidewalks bordering school property,” the ILC wrote.
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