As of about one hour ago, the Plano Independent School District is involved in two lawsuits claiming the district is violating its students' religious freedom. Well known is the case Morgan, et al. v. Plano Independent School District, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Sherman in 2004 after several students were told they couldn't distribute candy canes and pencils and other items bearing such messages as "Jesus is the Reason for the Season." That suit was filed by the Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute, which is part of the powerful Free Market Foundation, which was described in the Observer in February 2005 "as a family-first organization that gathers its members for regular anti-abortion rallies and uses its Web site to demand politicians pass legislation that defines marriage as 'between only a man and a woman.'"
The Morgan case--in which the lead plaintiff was a 3rd-grader at the time of the suit's filing--has become one of those suits around which folks rally when they claim that liberals are sucking God out of the schools or, at the very least, trouncing upon kids' First Amendment rights. The suit insists that the Plano school district has made "continual efforts to ban Christmas" from its hallways--language picked up by Bill O'Reilly last year, when he ever-so-even-handedly declared war on those who declared war on Christmas:
"In Plano, Texas, a school told students they couldn't wear red and green because they are Christmas colors. That's flat-out fascism. If I were a student in Plano, I'd be a walking Christmas tree after that order."
That suit's still in litigation: Hiram Sasser, an attorney for LLI, says they're waiting on U.S. District Judge Paul Brown to rule whether Plano's policies are unconstitutional--which, Sasser says, "could be in five minutes or in five days."
But LLI now has something else to occupy its time: Today it filed suit in Sherman against PISD for refusing to allow a Christian group called Students Witnessing Absolute Truth (or S.W.A.T.) to post its notices to a district-wide Web site on which other student clubs are allowed to maintain home pages. The lawsuit insists:
"By banning SWAT from the PISD Web Pages, PISD has denied SWAT an equal opportunity to communicate its mission, meeting times and announcements to every student in PISD. Meanwhile, the Origami Club, Ham Radio Club, Environmental Club, Multicultural Committee, and PeaceMakers continue to have access to the PISD Web pages."
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So, LLI is pissed at PISD on behalf of S.W.A.T.'s founder Michael Shell, who started the group at Haggard Middle School and posted S.W.A.T.'s info on the Web site for a week before, Sasser says, the district forced its removal.
"A religious club has been targeted," Sasser says. "This is an easy case."
Maybe in other school districts, but Plano has fought Morgan for almost two years and will likely defend this new suit just as vigorously. They take that separation of church and state thing pretty seriously up there, Ham Radio Club be damned.
"There is a soft drink bottling company, whose name I won't mention, that had a defense strategy which was, if someone found a bug in a bottle--and damages for that are small, something like $5,000 max--instead of settling they would spend millions fighting it to the death. They figured if they could bully everyone, they could choke on the lawsuit and regret bringing it. That seems to be Plano's legal strategy, and hopefully we're sending the message that it only keeps us coming stronger, harder, faster. We won't let them bully us." --Robert Wilonsky