RENO, Nev. (AP) — A rural Nevada school district has pulled the plug on a school community program that helped charitable organizations distribute promotional flyers after an evangelical Christian church threatened to file a lawsuit over prohibition of religious materials.
Lawyers for Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley sent a letter to the Lyon County School District last month demanding equal access to its community flyer distribution program, calling the current policy “unconstitutional censorship of religious viewpoints.”
District officials maintained the policy is legal. But on Wednesday, the district’s board voted unanimously to suspend distributing flyers immediately. The board plans to discuss possible revisions to the policy at its regular monthly meeting in January.
The policy adopted in July stated the district recognizes that many outside organizations “contribute to the education and positive development of students and their families,” and therefore the district may assist those groups in distributing flyers and announcements. But it specifically prohibited flyers that are “intended to promote a partisan political cause/candidate, promote a religious opinion/belief, are propagandistic or proselytizing.”
The church in Dayton 15 miles northeast of Carson City is being represented by a private law firm and the First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based public interest law firm that describes itself as the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedoms.
Jeremy Dys, general counsel for the First Liberty Institute, said the school board’s decision was “unnecessary and disappointing” and that the church is reviewing its options going forward.
“The Supreme Court has repeatedly held the First Amendment requires government agencies to be neutral toward private speech,” Dys said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press.
“The citizens of Lyon County should be gravely concerned that its school board would rather end an important, historic and much beloved community service than follow the law and run roughshod over the First Amendment,” he said.
Amber Williams, a private Las Vegas-based lawyer, said in the Nov. 28 letter that the district had refused to distribute flyers about the church’s “Harvest Party” in late October and an “Outdoor Excursions” program involving “outdoor activities and Christian mentorship.”
The district has distributed flyers about similar activities involving outdoor programs, sports leagues, and Halloween parties from a variety of local community groups, including Boys and Girls Clubs, Williams wrote.
But district officials refused to allow the church’s flyers unless they removed images of a cross and Bible quotations and changed phrases such as “Christ-centered discipleship/mentoring program” to “mentoring program,” she said.
District Superintendent Wayne Workman told the Fernley Leader-Courier after Wednesday’s meeting at Dayton Elementary School that the district averages three to five complaints per year about the content of flyers sent home.
Board member John Stevens said the district had distributed flyers for community organizations for years without a policy before adopting the guidelines in July outlining what was and wasn’t acceptable material.
“We put out a policy in July that seemed like the right thing to do to protect our children,” Stevens said, according to the newspaper. “None of us thought an issue like this could arise. This is certainly not the singling out of any particular group.”