Mechanicsburg High School

Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School.

Mechanicsburg Area School District has been hit with a suit in federal court over the recent Bible distribution controversy at the district’s high school.

The Independence Law Center, on behalf of a student group called the Christians in Action Club, filed a complaint on Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania claiming that the school’s actions violated students’ First Amendment rights.

"The Mechanicsburg Area School District is aware of the complaint filed by the Independence Law Center in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania," school district officials said in a news release issued Thursday. "It is unfortunate the Independence Law Center continues to pursue this publicity stunt rather than engage in a respectful and collaborative dialogue with our Administration. The complaint contains numerous inaccurate allegations."

At issue is the district’s policy regarding students disseminating outside materials at school and the district’s policy regarding student expression that “violates the rights of others.”

MASD’s policy, according to ILC, “contains overbroad and unconstitutional time and place restrictions that impose a complete ban on literature distribution during the school day.”

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 broad and arbitrary discretion provided by the district under its self-adopted rules, the ILC argues in it’s brief, “would thus prohibit a student from handing out invitations to a birthday party, giving a friend a copy of an interesting magazine article, sharing notes of encouragement with classmates, or even handing out pocket Constitutions to commemorate Constitution Day at any time during the school day.”

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 filing.

According to the ILC, Mechanicsburg High School Principal David Harris emailed the Christians in Action Club advisor, 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.”

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District policy, according to a copy of MASD Administrative Regulation 220, filed with ILC’s brief, restricts 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 are 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 wrote in its filing.

The ILC also argues that MASD exercises unconstitutionally broad and arbitrary power over not only the time and place, but the content of student expression.

MASD’s school board policy manual also notes that, in the context of regulation 220, that the school may prohibit activities “that are not protected by the right of free expression because they violate the rights of others.”

Nowhere in the board policy are such violations expounded upon. But Mechanicsburg’s high school student handbook does give examples of such a violation, which includes expressions which “seek to establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect or point of view.”

This essentially gives the district the broad power to control any instance in which a student expresses that a particular viewpoint is correct, the ILC argues.

“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.

In a statement issued Thursday, MASD said "students have always been welcome to bring, share, and discuss religious materials at school, including but not limited to the Bible, Koran or Torah.”

The district maintained that a “formal request” for the Christians in Action Club event was never submitted, regardless of Harris’ email correspondence.

"We have repeatedly encouraged the submittal of a formal request for distribution as required for all groups wishing to distribute non-school materials," district officials wrote. "The district looks forward to responding to the complaint and vigorously defending the culture and values of our school community."

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​Email Zack at zhoopes@cumberlink.com.