Two York County school districts accused of violating religious freedom

Spring Grove Area and Eastern York school districts allegedly violated first amendment rights to speak freely on religion in schools, according to letters sent Tuesday by the Independence Law Center. They were among 55 districts across the state that received letters by the center alleging unconstitutional policies. photo illustration Bill Kalina

Spring Grove Area and Eastern York school districts are violating First Amendment rights of students to speak freely about religion in schools, a conservative not-for-profit alleged Tuesday in a letter to the districts. 

The two were among 55 districts across the state that received letters from the Harrisburg-based Independence Law Center, an organization that often targets what it considers to be legal violations related to preventing Christians from practicing free religious speech.

The letters state the organization will file a federal lawsuit if the districts don't cease what the center considers constitutional violations by April 1.

“Instead of equal treatment, many schools have treated students’ religious speech like dangerous asbestos — to be cordoned off and eliminated from our schools,” stated Jeremy Samek, senior counsel for the law center, in a news release.

Eastern York’s letter targets two districtwide policies prohibiting free expression, the organization alleged.

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In the district's community Policy 913, students cannot distribute any materials that promote or denigrate a religion or its practices, or are derogatory toward any religious group.

Eastern Superintendent Joseph Mancuso did not respond Thursday to requests for comment. Eastern board member Todd Lentz did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday. Board member Darvin Shelley declined comment. 

The other policy named in the letter — pupils Policy 220 — says students cannot "establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect or point of view."

Spring Grove was targeted for similar language to Policy 220 in its high school handbook.

Spring Grove district spokeswoman Stephanie Kennedy could not be reached Thursday for comment. Board member Karen Baum declined comment.

Often, school district policies and handbooks are based on guidance issued by the Pennsylvania School Board Association.

Eastern's Policy 913 was adopted in 2004 and revised this October, according to the district policy listing. Policy 220 was also adopted in 2004 and has yet to be revised.

"School districts have lots of policies and lots of things on their plate, and these things go under the radar," Samek said.

Central York, for example, has the same Policy 913, but it was updated Dec. 9. That district's version of the policy does not mention religion; it simply prohibits materials that are "libelous, defamatory, obscene, lewd, vulgar, or profane."

The law center last year was successful in cases against three districts for alleged discriminatory action, including Mechanicsburg Area School District, which was taken to federal court for preventing students from handing out Bibles at lunch.

These recent cases against districts also reflect a national battle over religion's place in schools.  

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that the administration says will "safeguard" religious expression. 

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