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'It was barely a discussion': Spring Grove schools change rule on religious expression

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

The Spring Grove Area school board voted unanimously on Monday to update its high school handbook, striking a line under its “Student Expression” section that restricted students from speaking freely about religion.

It was a change recommended by the conservative not-for-profit Independence Law Center, which sent the district a letter Jan. 21 threatening a lawsuit if officials did not update the handbook by April 1.

The handbook listed “Seek to establish the supremacy of a particular religious denomination, sect, or point of view” as something that would not be protected by the right to free expression because it violates the rights of others.

The Harrisburg-based law center, which advocates for Christian rights through legal action, alleged district officials were violating the Constitution by policing speech about religion.

More:Two York County school districts accused of violating religious freedom

A letter sent Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, to Spring Grove Area School District in which the Independence Law Center accused the district of violating the First Amendment rights of Christians.

"We’re pleased and thankful that they took the time to look into the issue and revise the unconstitutional student handbook section," said Jeremy Samek, senior counsel for the law center, when reached Tuesday, Feb. 11.

Samek said upon receiving the letter, district officials exchanged several emails with the center, thanking the group for pointing out the issue and expressing the district's intent to remove the language in question.

Eastern York: Spring Grove was among 55 districts across the state — including Eastern York School District — that received letters in January demanding policy changes.

The law center threatened all of those districts with lawsuits unless they revise their policies under the law center's recommendations by April 1. 

Spring Grove brought the issue to its board on Jan. 27 and voted Monday, Feb. 10. Eastern York does not have any board committee or voting meetings until next week, but Samek said that district replied that it would look at its targeted policies with its counsel.

District Policy 220 — which Spring Grove's handbook mirrored in its language about religious expressions not being protected under free speech — is also one of the policies targeted at Eastern. The other is Policy 913, which regulates distributing religious materials.

As it stands now at Eastern, under Policy 913 students cannot distribute any materials that promote or denigrate a religion or its practices or are derogatory toward any religious group.

Update to handbook: For Spring Grove board members and administration, it was an easy decision to update the handbook because the change would align it with district policy, which was updated last fall, said Superintendent George Ioannidis.

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The district typically updates its handbook in the spring, Ioannidis said, and in this case, the law center beat officials to it.

“Our policy was where it should have been with regard to the freedom of expression for our students,” he said. “The language in the handbook needed to be updated to match it, and that was our oversight.”

When asked if the district should have updated its handbook earlier, Samek said the most important thing would be to communicate to students that an update was coming so they didn't act based on old standards.

"Certainly, those are what students rely on to know what they can or can’t do," he said of the handbook guidelines.

Ioannidis said he could not speak on the politics of religion in schools, but he said it was the responsibility of his district to be in line with state and federal law, and the law center’s recommendations matched what would have been required.

“It was barely a discussion,” he said of updating the handbook. “ Like, ‘Oh yep, we needed to dot that last 'i' and be done with it.'"

Board members also took the opportunity Monday to update the handbook in accordance with tobacco and nicotine Policy 222 to reflect recent law changes that make it a summary offense to vape on school property.

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