U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly also has struck down an Everett schools policy banning students from handing out materials they didn’t write or produce themselves.
A federal judge has struck down as unconstitutional a portion of an Everett School District policy used to discipline a proselytizing student at Cascade High School, and overturned the suspensions the school used to punish him for handing out religious tracts at lunch.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly awarded the student, Michael Leal, token damages of $1 and said his attorneys could collect their costs from the school district. Leal’s attorneys said they also will pursue attorneys’ fees.
The lawsuit, filed last November, had claimed Leal was being punished by the district for expressing his fundamentalist Christian views, in violation of his right to free speech.
That portion of the lawsuit was resolved early on when the high school agreed to set aside a “free speech zone,” near a statue of the school’s bear mascot, where all can express their views.
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Zilly left most of the district’s policy on handing out literature intact. Sarah Heineman, one of the attorneys hired to defend the district, said the school will still be able to say when and where tracts can be distributed.
However, the judge found that a section of the policy restricting the content of any handouts to materials “written and/or produced by students” was overbroad and unconstitutional.
Leal is described in the lawsuit as a “young man who is a practitioner of the Christian faith”and who believes in conveying his beliefs to others. Primarily, the lawsuit says, that involves the “distribution of written materials and oral communications to individuals or groups of persons attending [Cascade High School] or its events.”
Central to Leal’s beliefs was his insistence in passing out a 52-page tract called “How to Know God,” which mostly contained quotations from the Bible. The district suspended him three times for violating that particular portion of the policy, and Zilly ordered that those notices of discipline be removed from his student file.
“The district is very pleased that the bulk of its policy was upheld,” said Heineman. “We are glad it was recognized this was not about religious discrimination.”
The district said it never told Leal that his activities were inappropriate because of religious content, but rather that his behavior was disruptive during school and that other students had complained. In one instance, the district said, students complained that Leal yelled “Praise the Lord!” in a class.
Leal also once used a bullhorn to deliver a 20-minute extemporaneous sermon at a school “car bash and bonfire” pep rally, an oration that ended only after Leal was told police had been called. Administrators said these and other instances — including lunchroom preaching — created a “substantial disruption” at the school.
Leal was represented by attorneys from California-based Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal-defense organization led by attorney Brad Dacus, who was a spokesman for the California campaign to pass Proposition 8, which would have banned gay marriage. He gained national attention when he compared the rise of gay marriage to the rise of Hitler in Nazi Germany.
Kevin Snider, an attorney at the institute, commended the school for establishing a zone where students like Leal can express their views without fear of retaliation. “The law requires students to have the ability to engage in free speech,” he said.
Leal is a senior and will graduate June 10, said Heineman. She would not say if other complaints or issues were raised by his proselytizing, citing student privacy.