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Huntington Beach City School District amends its religious expression policy to settle lawsuit

A flier showing a child holding a Bible
The principal of Peterson Elementary School in Huntington Beach told Holly Bausch last year that her sons Micah and Nieko could not pass out this flier during school hours.
(Daily Pilot)

The Huntington Beach City School District has amended its freedom of expression policy in response to a federal lawsuit filed in January by a mother and father after their children were barred from passing out fliers during the school day encouraging classmates to bring Bibles to school.

The district board approved amendments last week designed to protect the free exercise of religion and private religious speech.

For the record:
4:35 PM, Aug. 06, 2019 This article originally stated that Bausch contacted Haulk, who told her the boys could pass out the papers. It was actually Polhemus who contacted Haulk.

Additionally, the policy now states that students will not be restricted from posting or distributing bulletin board materials, handbills, leaflets or other printed matter, whether produced in or outside the school, that contain religious content.

The district also agreed to pay $15,000 for the family’s attorney fees.

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The victory, according to Bill Becker, the family’s lawyer, was in the explicit protection of religious speech.

“There’s this misconception that somehow you can’t talk about your own faith in school,” Becker said Monday.

“But what the Constitution says is that the state can’t endorse a religion or show preference for any particular religion,” Becker said. “It doesn’t say that you as an individual can’t express your own opinions about religion.”

District officials could not be immediately reached for comment Monday.

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Holly Bausch, the mother of the two children, did not respond to a request for comment.

The issue dates to September when, according to the lawsuit, Micah Bausch, a Peterson Elementary School student, asked his teacher about hanging a poster and handing out fliers for Bring Your Bible to School Day during lunch and recess.

Bring Your Bible to School Day is an annual nationwide event in October sponsored by Christian organization Focus on the Family.

The event’s website describes it as a celebration of religious freedom “designed to empower you as a student to express your belief in the truth of God’s word and to do so in a respectful way that demonstrates the love of Christ.”

The fliers showed a child holding an open Bible, along with the event’s website address and an excerpt from Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine.”

The teacher responded a week later that Peterson Elementary Principal Constance Polhemus said Micah could not hang a poster but could hand out fliers “during free time only.” However, when Micah’s younger brother Nieko started handing out fliers, his teacher stopped him until he received permission from the school.

Holly Bausch contacted Nieko’s teacher and Polhemus for clarification, saying Micah had already received permission.

According to the lawsuit, Polhemus said in an email to Bausch on Oct. 2 that she had not authorized handing out the fliers and that the boys were not allowed to distribute them during campus instructional hours — class time, recess and lunch — but could hand them out off campus before and after school.

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“As a public school, we cannot approve the distribution of religious materials to students during school hours,” Polhemus wrote.

Polhemus contacted district Supt. Gregg Haulk, who told her the boys could pass out the papers. Polhemus then contacted Bausch and said the brothers could pass them out before and after school, though not during the school day. She didn’t specify whether it could be done on or off campus.

Haulk said later that the permission included the campus.

Becker said the boys ultimately did not hand out the fliers.

Haulk said in January that he and Polhemus were surprised when they were served with the lawsuit three months after they thought the issue was resolved. He said the policy against handing out the papers during the school day was intended to prevent distractions and that the restrictions had nothing to do with the fliers’ content.

Nguyen writes for Times Community News.


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