The Harrisburg-based Independence Law Center ordered 55 Pennsylvania school districts, including the Big Beaver Falls Area School District, to change policies silencing students from speaking about religion or face a lawsuit.
BEAVER FALLS — Big Beaver Falls Area School District officials have changed a long-standing policy after threats of a lawsuit from a Harrisburg-based religious liberty-focused law group.
The Independence Law Center sent letters to 55 school districts across Pennsylvania ordering officials to change policies they felt violated the Constitution regarding student religious speech.
Jeremy Samek, senior counsel for the law center, said Big Beaver Falls‘ policy restricted various types of unprotected speech — pornographic speech, speech that incites violence and speech that indicates one’s religious beliefs are superior to another. That last piece was the problem, Samek said.
“This was an effort to put school districts on notice that hadn’t had incidents that they need to remove these policies,” Samek said. “A lot of the time, what happens is there‘s an instance where they’re applying the policy and don‘t realize they’re wrong.”
The firm describes itself as a “public-interest law firm” that works with the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a nonprofit group whose aim is to preserve religious liberty, promote marriage and the family and protect human life. According to its website, “Everything we do at the Independence Law Center centers around enhancing your ability to live out your faith. We’re advancing the gospel through protecting Christian ministries, protecting religious liberty in our education systems and preserving your right to live out your values in today’s society.”
Samek said Big Beaver Falls officials responded swiftly and took action immediately to revise the policy.
Donna Nugent, superintendent at Big Beaver Falls, said the policy in question was adopted around 1999 and is one of several the district is currently revamping. It focused on student expression in fliers and distribution.
It was outdated and needed revamped to keep up with the evolution of First Amendment law, she said.
“We can‘t discriminate on somebody’s point of view,” Nugent said. “It wasn‘t up to date on what is protected and unprotected speech and our language was old. We’re revising it based on evolution of the law.”
Big Beaver Falls is among a handful of districts in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties to receive a letter, Samek said. Others include Neshannock and Union school districts in Lawrence County, Butler Area and Slippery Rock Area school districts in Butler County and Hampton, Mount Lebanon, Pine-Richland and Wilkinsburg school districts in Allegheny County. Big Beaver Falls was the lone Beaver County district contacted, he said.
The letters were spurred by a review of policies after the firm handled a court case last year against the Mechanicsburg Area School District in Cumberland County. District officials wouldn‘t let the school’s Christians in Action group post fliers advertising their meetings that had a Bible verse on the bottom — the fliers could only be posted if students removed the quote, Samek said. The district also prohibited the students from distributing Bibles during school hours, including lunch.
Samek said the firm reached out to schools to clear up any confusion that there may be about the unconstitutionality of these types of policies.
“It usually comes down to a misunderstanding of what the Constitution requires,” Samek said. “It could be applied wrongly.”