A religious liberty advocacy group has threatened legal action against the West Covina school district because a first-grade student was allegedly prohibited from distributing candy canes with attached Christian messages on campus.
Isaiah Martinez sought in December to hand out the red-and-white treats to his fellow students at Merced Elementary School, but a teacher threw the boy’s attached religious messages into the trash, telling him “Jesus is not allowed at school,” according to an attorney representing his family.
“The actions of the school district were hostile and intimidating to Isaiah,” stated a letter dated Monday and written to the West Covina Unified School District from a lawyer for the student.
Isaiah’s family is being represented by Robert Tyler, general counsel for Advocates for Faith & Freedom, a nonprofit Murrieta-based law firm that works on issues of religious liberty with a mission to protect America’s foundation on Judeo-Christian principles, according to the group’s website.
The boy’s First Amendment rights to free speech and protection from hostility toward religion were violated, and the family will “be forced to take legal action” if the school district does not respond by Jan. 13, Tyler said.
In a written statement, Superintendent Debra Kaplan said the district had not fully been able to investigate the claims.
“The District’s overriding concern was and is to honor and respect the beliefs of all students in matters of religion. To that end, the District strives to maintain neutrality in matters of religion, and to observe students’ rights of expression, in a manner that does not conflict with the rights of other students,” Kaplan said. “During the holiday season, and particularly when young elementary students are involved, this can require difficult balancing.”
The candy canes Isaiah had hoped to distribute on Dec. 13 contained a printed legend about the maker of candy canes, saying the confections were originally a symbol inspired by Jesus Christ, according to Tyler’s letter to the school district.
“I pray that this symbol will again be used to witness to the Wonder of Jesus and His Great Love that came down at Christmas and remains the ultimate and dominant force in the universe today,” the accompanying text concluded, according to the letter.
After conferring with the school’s principal, Isaiah’s teacher told him, “Jesus is not allowed at school,” Tyler’s letter states. The teacher removed the religious messages and threw them away, telling Isaiah he could distribute the candy without the cards, according to the letter.
After more back-and-forth with school officials, the boy was permitted several days later to hand out the candy canes just outside of school property.
“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,” said Advocates for Faith & Freedom general counsel Robert Tyler in a news release. “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.”
On behalf of Isaiah’s family, Tyler demanded the school district issue a written apology and that “a new policy be adopted to prohibit school officials from bullying and intimidating Christian students and religiously affiliated students.”
The district takes the concerns in Tyler’s letter seriously, Kaplan said, and “will investigate and respond to them in a manner consistent with our policies and the rights of all students of the district.”