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Hillsborough schools' Easter egg hunt flier ban violated student's rights, judge finds

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School Board violated the First Amendment rights of a fourth-grader who wanted to hand out invitations to an Easter egg hunt last spring, a federal magistrate has ruled.

The fourth-grade student at Lewis Elementary School in Temple Terrace asked a substitute teacher for permission to hand out invitations to the egg hunt.

He later got a note from the principal that said, "We are not allowed to pass out fliers related to religious events or activities."

That denial sparked a lawsuit filed by the child's mother, Kimberly Gilio, with backing from several religious organizations that was heard by a magistrate in August.

U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth A. Jenkins ruled Oct. 5 that the School Board used two rules to justify stopping the child, identified only as J.G., from handing out invitations to his classmates that said "learn the true meaning of Easter."

Neither rule meets the standard that allows schools to restrict personal speech, Jenkins found.

But that doesn't mean J.G. can hand out fliers this year. Jenkins said an immediate order allowing the boy to distribute religious invitations was "unnecessary."

"J.G.'s invitations are not entitled to special treatment," Jenkins wrote. "The School Board must be able to perform its responsibility of educating students, as long as it does so consistent with the Constitution."

The School Board argued that the invitations contained a proselytizing message and sought to establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect or point of view over any other religious denomination, sect or point of view — things that are prohibited on school grounds by board policies.

The School Board should be prohibited from applying its rules to J.G.'s invitations unless it is necessary to prevent interference with schoolwork or discipline, Jenkins ruled.

Gilio and the School Board's attorney could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Both parties can file objections to the recommendation.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Hillsborough schools' Easter egg hunt flier ban violated student's rights, judge finds 10/09/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 7:00am]
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