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WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Department of Justice today announced that a federal court in Massachusetts held that a public high school violated the free speech rights of students when it suspended them for handing out candy canes with religious messages attached to them.

The students, members of a Bible club at Westfield High School, had been told that they could distribute the candy canes with a "Happy Holidays" message, but forbidden to attach a message containing a prayer and a description of the religious origins of the candy cane. The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts ruled that the one-day suspensions given to the students violated their first amendment rights, and entered a preliminary injunction barring the school from punishing them or enforcing similar speech restrictions against them.

The students filed suit in January and moved for a preliminary injunction against the school. The Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed friend-of-the-court briefs, urging the court to rule in favor of the students in the case, Westfield L.I.F.E. Club v. City of Westfield.

In a 62-page ruling today, the Court held that there was no evidence that the students' distribution of the religious messages with the candy canes was disruptive. The Court held that, "School-age children are compelled by law to attend school, but while there lawfully, they enjoy the right to free personal intercommunication with other students, so long as their communication with other students does not substantially or materially disrupt the operation of the classroom or impinge upon the rights of others."

Ralph Boyd, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice, said, "The Supreme Court, more than thirty years ago, held that students do not shed their free speech rights at the school house gates. Nonetheless, some schools have persisted in the mistaken belief that once students step inside those gates, they enter religion-free zones where expressions of faith are prohibited. This decision sends a strong message that schools may not discriminate against student expression simply because it is religious."

The Court rejected the school's claim that the Constitution's Establishment Clause required them to censor the religious speech of the students, holding that while school-sponsored religious speech is forbidden by the Constitution, student religious speech is constitutionally protected. The Court held that "At the heart of the school's argument lies a widely held misconception of constitutional law that has infected our sometimes politically overcorrect society: The Establishment Clause does not apply to private action; it applies only to government action."

The Court also rejected the school's claim that the religious messages could be barred because they might be offensive to non-Christian students. The Court held that by singling out religious messages for censorship, the school had violated "a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment" that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because it might be disagreeable or offensive. The Court said there was no evidence of interference with the orderly operation of the school, and while a few students were uncomfortable with the religious message, "the uncontroverted evidence shows that those students finding the Club's religious message disagreeable merely set the messages aside and enjoyed a minty treat for their troubles."