Court OKs church invites at Pa. school

Law still evolving on how case should affect elementary schools

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PHILADELPHIA -- A Pennsylvania fifth-grader may distribute invitations to a church Christmas party at her public school because it won't cause a "substantial disruption," a U.S. appeals court panel ruled Tuesday.

The panel upheld a lower court's preliminary decision allowing the student -- identified only as K.A. -- to take the invitations into her Pocono Mountains school based on a free speech standard established in a Vietnam-era Supreme Court case involving a high school anti-war protest.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court noted the law is still evolving on how the case should affect elementary schools.

"The fact that K.A. was only in the fifth grade and the invitation originated from her church does not mandate a different approach," Judge Thomas Vanaskie wrote in his 31-page opinion.

At the same time, the three-judge panel said schools can exert more control over younger students, given their age and maturity level. The court has previously said a preschooler could not distribute pencils promoting a Christian message to classmates.

In this case, the invitation described a 2010 Christmas party at Innovation Church in Mt. Pocono, with face painting, music and games. After some back and forth between the girl's father and school officials, the Pocono Mountain School District rejected the girl's request to distribute the flier.

In its ruling, the court noted the district allowed some outside organizations to send fliers home with students about non-school events. Students were also permitted to distribute birthday party invitations, Valentines and other material.

The girl hoped "to share her religious faith with her classmates," according to the opinion.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., backed the family's appeal.

"America's public schools should recognize the constitutionally protected freedom of students who wish to hand out these kinds of fliers," said Matt Sharp, the group's legal counsel. "A flier cannot be banned just because some element of religious faith is a part of it. On the contrary, the First Amendment specifically protects religious speech."

Lawyer John Freund, who represented the school district, did not immediately return a message left at his office.

The Rev. Charles Kollar, pastor of Innovation Church, said in an email to the Pocono Record last week, "In this case, [we had] a common-sense decision to allow children to invite other children to after-school activities. ... Whether the invitation is for a religious or non-religious event should not be a factor."

At the time the suit was filed, the pertinent school's policy read:

"Any requests from civic organizations or special interest groups which involve such activities as patriotic functions, contests, exhibits, sales of products to or by students, sending promotional materials home with students, graduation prizes, or fundraising must be examined to insure that such activities promote student interests primarily, rather than the special interests of any particular group."

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