Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Education

Hillsborough Easter egg suit could change policy on religious speech

TAMPA — In March 2012, a fourth-grade student at Lewis Elementary School tried to invite his school friends to an Easter egg hunt.

A year, a lawsuit and a court order later, the Hillsborough County School District is poised to change its policy on religious-themed materials.

Tom Gonzalez, the district's attorney, has proposed a settlement that would seek to change a policy that now stops the distribution of materials from groups promoting the benefits of a particular religion.

A policy change cannot happen without at least one public hearing, meaning the issue might be debated publicly at a School Board meeting.

And if Easter invitations are allowed, the same will hold true for literature from other faiths.

"When you have a First Amendment right, the people who disagree with you also have that right," Gonzalez said.

The local controversy, mirrored in court cases elsewhere, began when Kimberly Gilio's son tried to invite children to an egg hunt in his Temple Terrace neighborhood.

The invitation told the children to wear play clothes and bring Easter baskets to a Saturday event at a condominium complex. The purpose was "to have fun and learn the true meaning of Easter."

The family alleges the school's principal flagged the invitation, saying children "are not allowed to pass out fliers related to religious events or activities."

Gilio filed a federal lawsuit, alleging the school district violated her son's rights to freedom of speech and religion. She was assisted by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona group that seeks to find legal ways to protect religious liberty.

Gonzalez argued in court that this was not a case of a young child expressing himself, but of a church seeking to enter the school by using the child as its messenger.

Lawyers for the Alliance say that argument has not been successful in recent cases.

"Students have First Amendment rights and you can't exclude religious speech any more," said Jeremy Tedesco, a member of Gilio's legal team. "You can't single out religious speech or organizations for exclusion."

His group took a similar case, involving a fifth-grader's Christmas party invitations, all the way to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania —- and won.

In Tampa, Magistrate Elizabeth Jenkins sided with the Gilio family in October, saying the district could not use existing board policy to stop the child from handing out invitations.

The district now finds itself in a bind, board chairwoman April Griffin said.

If it continues to fight, the district might be unable to allow any outside groups to distribute literature in the schools — not even Little League or the YMCA.

"It seems to be all or nothing," Griffin said. "Really, what can we do? Our hands are tied."

The settlement, which will be voted on Tuesday, would initiate the hearing process. Ultimately, the board will vote.

If the policy changes, the district will pay Gilio and the Alliance $35,857 in legal fees and costs, and Gilio will drop the lawsuit. If the policy doesn't change, the settlement offer is null and void.

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