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Hillsborough schools may let students hand out religious information

TAMPA — For the second time in as many years, the Hillsborough County School Board is wrestling with a question of religion.

At a public hearing, the board will hear the pros and cons of allowing students to circulate religious materials at school.

But regardless of what is said, board members are likely to allow it. A federal court ruling in October, in favor of a family who wanted to distribute Easter event invitations, leaves little choice.

"The court's really tying our hands, and that for me is very troubling," Chairwoman April Griffin said Tuesday.

With little discussion, the board agreed Tuesday to start the hearing process, which will take 30 to 90 days.

If a new policy is adopted, students of all faiths would be able to distribute information as long as it is not disruptive, inappropriate or "grossly prejudicial to an ethnic, religious, racial or other delineated group."

That's a far cry from the existing policy, which allows school officials to prohibit materials that "seek to establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect, or point of view over any other religious denomination, sect, or point of view."

Courts in some communities have ruled that religious materials in the hands of students are protected under a First Amendment right to free speech.

One such case in a federal appeals court in Pennsylvania, over invitations to a Christmas party, went in the child's favor.

The attorneys came from the same organization that represented the Gilio family of Temple Terrace, who sued after their son was stopped at Lewis Elementary from handing out invitations to an Easter egg hunt. The invitation promised guests would learn "the true meaning of Easter."

At the time, the school district argued the invitations appeared to be from a church, and that therefore the church was seeking to intrude in the school.

But the family's attorneys argued successfully that, regardless of where the material originates, the child has a right to bring it to school.

"Kids don't shed their First Amendment rights when they walk through the door of the school," said Terry Kemple, a Christian conservative activist in east Hillsborough and candidate for the School Board.

Kemple was at the forefront of an effort last year to ban representatives of the Council on American-Islamic Relations from speaking in local schools.

He insisted religion had nothing to do with that fight. He and his followers said CAIR had terrorist ties, which CAIR denied.

When asked Tuesday if he would accept a student who wanted to deliver an Islamic message on campus, Kemple said, "absolutely, if it isn't CAIR."

Hassan Shibly of CAIR, who was at the center of last year's controversy, said he welcomes a free exchange of ideas but wonders if Islamic material truly would be allowed.

"We hope that those who are fighting to ensure Christian students can share their faith in school will stand strong with Jewish, Muslim, and other students who wish to do the same," he said. "You cannot stand for First Amendment rights only for the faith or point of view you agree with and deny it to those who share a faith you disagree with."

Griffin said she, too, wonders what might come from a change. "I certainly hope that people understand the concept of 'be careful what you wish for' because it just might come true," she said.

It's a complex issue, said Rabbi Jason Rosenberg of Congregation Beth Am, a North Tampa synagogue. "I tend to lean toward free speech," Rosenberg said. "But there is an issue about marginalizing people."

He also made a distinction between private acts, such as passing out party invitations; and official acts, such as prayer before a school event. "One of the side effects is that it highlights the differences between the students who are praying, who seem normal, and those who in this case are not normal."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this article. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356