A Huntington Beach mother and father are suing the Huntington Beach City School District after their sons initially were told they couldn’t pass out fliers encouraging their classmates to bring their Bibles to school.
The federal lawsuit, filed Jan. 7 in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, came after the principal of Peterson Elementary School told Holly Bausch in October that her sons Micah and Nieko couldn’t pass out the Bring Your Bible to School Day fliers during campus instructional hours — including class time, recess and lunch — because of the papers’ religious content.
Bring Your Bible to School Day is an annual nationwide event sponsored by the Christian organization Focus on the Family. According to the event’s website, children take their Bibles to school every October to “share God’s hope and celebrate religious freedom by doing something simple, yet powerful: They bring their Bibles to school and talk about it with friends.”
The fliers show a child holding an open Bible, along with the event’s website address and an excerpt from Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine.”
“Principal [Constance] Polhemus and the Huntington Beach City School District are about to learn a hard lesson in constitutional law,” according to a statement from Bill Becker, president of the Christian organization Freedom X and the lawyer representing the family. “Students, regardless of grade level, have a 1st Amendment right to express a religious viewpoint to another student, including the right to distribute religious fliers, without fear.”
According to the lawsuit, which names the school district and Polhemus as defendants, Micah, a fifth-grader, asked his teacher about passing out the fliers and the teacher reportedly said he had asked the principal and learned it was allowed “during free time only.” Nieko, a second-grader, started passing out fliers before his teacher stopped him.
Bausch contacted the second-grade teacher and Polhemus, who initially said the children didn’t have permission to hand out the fliers.
Fliers must be “appropriate for general distribution to all families,” Polhemus said in an email to Bausch. “As a public school, we cannot approve the distribution of religious materials to students during school hours.”
Polhemus added that the brothers could read their Bibles at school and pass out the fliers before and after school off campus, but not during recess, lunch or in class because those are instructional times.
However, after her exchange with Bausch, Polhemus contacted district Supt. Gregg Haulk, who told her the boys could pass out the papers. Polhemus then contacted Bausch and said the brothers were clear to 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 Tuesday that the permission included the campus.
Becker said the boys ultimately did not hand out the fliers.
Haulk said he and Polhemus were surprised when they were served with the lawsuit three months after they thought they had resolved the issue.
Haulk defended the policy against handing out the papers during the school day because some students could be in class while others are at lunch or recess and the fliers could be a distraction. He said the restrictions have nothing to do with the fliers’ content.
“At Huntington Beach City, we’re very protective of our instructional time,” he said.
Becker said the family wants the policy changed to something narrowly defined and objective.
Davis writes for the Times Community News.