A Southern California school district is under fire for preventing a first grader from handing out to his classmates candy canes with religious messages, a lawyer for the student said.
After conferring with the principal at Merced Elementary School in West Covina on Dec. 13, a teacher told the student, 6-year-old Isaiah Martinez, “Jesus is not allowed in school."
“I was shocked,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wow, they really just said no.’”
He said the teacher then threw the messages in the trash before handing the candy back to him to pass out to his classmates.
He “then nervously handed the candy canes to his classmates in fear that he was in trouble for trying to bring a little Christmas cheer and ‘good tidings’ to class,” said his lawyer, Robert Tyler, an attorney for the Advocates for Faith & Freedom, which works to preserve religious liberty in the legal system.
Tyler sent a letter to the West Covina Unified School District demanding a written apology and the implementation of a new policy to prohibit school officials from “bullying and intimidating” Christian students and religiously affiliated students, he said.
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School officials said they are reviewing the matter.
“The district’s overriding concern was and is to honor and respect the beliefs of all students in matters of religion,” Debra Kaplan, the superintendent of the West Covina Unified School District, wrote in a statement. “At the present time, we do not have any reason to believe that the teacher or any other district employee had any intention other than to maintain an appropriate degree of religious neutrality in the classroom and to communicate this to the child in an age-appropriate manner.”
Each gift consisted of a traditional candy cane with a message attached that recited the legend of the candy cane. The legend references a candy maker who created the candy cane to symbolize the life of Jesus Christ.
The student’s older sister told him about the legend of the candy cane and he asked if he could share it with his teacher and his classmates.
The student and his sister then purchased candy canes, printed the candy cane message and tied a copy to each candy cane.
Tyler said the advocacy group has seen a surge in phone calls from students and their parents across the country who he says are victims of “religiously motivated bullying,” not by students but by teachers and school officials.
A similar case in Texas in which a third grader was prevented from handing out a "candy cane ink pen" with a religious message has been winding its way through court for years.
“The pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that public schools are becoming a place of hostility toward Christian and other religiously-based worldviews,” Tyler said. ”It’s time to push the pendulum back in the right direction where kids can experience true tolerance without religiously motivated hostility from their teachers and school officials."