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Lawsuit alleges Hillsborough school blocked free speech, religious expression

TAMPA — A fourth-grader at Lewis Elementary School in Temple Terrace wanted to invite classmates to an Easter egg hunt. So on March 26, the boy brought 20 invitations to school.

The fliers said students "would have fun and learn the true meaning of Easter."

But the school's principal would not allow the boy to distribute the invitations, sending a note home with him that said, "We are not allowed to pass out fliers related to religious events or activities."

A federal judge Wednesday heard arguments about whether the school's refusal to allow those invitations to be distributed violated the boy's First Amendment right to free speech and religious expression. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Jenkins is being asked to grant an injunction ordering the school to let the boy distribute such materials in the future.

Jenkins did not reach an immediate decision after an hourlong hearing and did not say when she would rule.

The suit is one of several controversies for Hillsborough schools on religious issues in recent years, including debate over holding classes on Good Friday and allowing a Muslim advocacy group to send visitors to school.

The boy's mother, Kimberly Gilio, represented by several Christian legal groups, filed a federal lawsuit in May, saying her son, referred to only as J.G. in court papers, should have been allowed to distribute the invitations. Students often hand out invitations to birthday parties and other nonschool events, the lawsuit said.

"J.G. is a Bible-believing Christian whose religious beliefs compel him to share his faith with his friends and fellow students," Gilio's attorneys said in a motion.

They said the Easter egg hunt was organized by Gilio with members of her church, which is not identified in court documents.

Gilio did not attend the hearing, and her attorneys said she would not comment.

"Students do not shed their First Amendment rights when they go to school," attorney J. Matthew Sharp told the judge. Sharp also is a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, whose motto is "For Faith, For Justice."

Hillsborough School Board attorney Thomas Gonzalez said the invitations violated a policy prohibiting outside groups from handing out materials at schools. In this case, the invitations were clearly generated by the boy's church, Gonzalez said. He said J.G. was not being barred from inviting other children himself.

"This is, in fact, a church working through a student to bring somebody" to the Easter egg hunt, he said.

"We suggest he doesn't have a First Amendment right to distribute (materials) on behalf of his church," Gonzalez said.

But Sharp said the boy essentially adopted the views of the church as his own when he brought the fliers on school property.

Courts have previously ruled that handing out such literature in noninstructional time is permissible as long as the school activity is not substantially disrupted, Sharp said.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

Lawsuit alleges Hillsborough school blocked free speech, religious expression 08/22/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 10:53pm]
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