After lawsuit threat, Eastern York moves to roll back religious speech limits

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

Eastern York school board members on Thursday moved toward overhauling two policies labeled unconstitutional by a conservative organization that accused the district of suppressing religious expression.

The two policies limit what students and outside organizations can say about religion and what information can be distributed on school grounds. 

"Since the school district has a long history of allowing students to express themselves through religious freedom," the district's proposal was merely a matter of bringing policy in line with practice, according to Superintendent Joseph Mancuso.

Mancuso would not say what those specific policy changes would be, and he denied release of the draft policy based on recommendations from the district's solicitor.

“Unfortunately since those are only in draft form, have not officially been approved by the board, we would not make those public until the next board meeting in March," he said.

This past month, Harrisburg-based Independence Law Center, an organization that advocates for Christian rights, sent letters to 55 districts throughout Pennsylvania demanding policy changes by April 1 under threat of a lawsuit. 

Eastern and Spring Grove Area school districts received letters. Earlier this month, Spring Grove updated its student handbook to reflect policy changes in response to the law center's threat.

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

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

Harrisburg-based Independence Law Center, a conservative not-for-profit organization that advocates for Christian rights through legal action, sent letters to 55 school districts across the state in January 2020, alleging constitutional violations for outdated policy language. Pictured is a letter to Eastern York School District citing a case in which policies restricting religious speech were removed when lawsuits were filed.

Under the law center's recommendations, Eastern would have to remove mention of religion as unprotected free speech in its policies.

Policies 220 and 913 are used by school districts across the state — many of which have updated them to reflect a more general list of unprotected free speech, such as materials or actions that violate laws or district policies, rules or regulations, or are "libelous, defamatory, obscene, lewd, vulgar, or profane."

Old language in Policy 913, for example, prohibits speech that "promotes or denigrates a particular religion or religious practice" or "is derogatory toward any ethnic, religious or racial group."

Mancuso said policy changes often come as recommendations from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, often due to new case law or state law, but he's unsure if that was the case with these policies.

PSBA spokeswoman Annette Stevenson said the association recommended updates to the two policies three times in the past 15 years, most recently in 2019.

Dover Area School District is also looking into updates of the same policies, adding to its student policy that any expression that "violates federal, state or local laws, Board policy or district rules or procedures" would not be protected under free speech.

Interference with the rights of others also was included in the list of unprotected free speech.

Dover's Feb. 18 agenda noted proposed changes were recommended by PSBA as a result of the recent law center review of district policies concerning religious freedom.

District spokesman Brad Perkins said Dover is undergoing a major overhaul of its policies with the help of PSBA, and the timing of the revisions happened to line up.

Eastern will have its policies on the agenda for board approval at its meeting March 19.