Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Teacher Not Liable For Banning Religious Candy Canes

Being a teacher is tough. Between unruly students, angry parents, and seemingly unceasing budget cuts, teachers have enough to keep them awake at night. Thankfully, being sued might not be among them. A recent case out of the Fifth Circuit, Morgan v. Swanson, was a major victory for teachers and school officials. In that case, an elementary school in Texas had an in-school party during the holiday season. A parent and his son brought candy canes as gifts for the students. The candy canes, however, had a religious message attached to them. When the school’s principal saw the religious message, she told the parent and his son that they could not distribute them. The principal explained that the school had a policy against distributing materials with religious messages.

The father and son sued the principal, alleging that she had violated their First Amendment rights. And the Fifth Circuit agreed. However, they held that the principal had immunity from the lawsuit because the law regarding this area of the First Amendment was too complicated for her to know how to handle religious messages at school parties. The court held that teachers and school officials are shielded from liability in lawsuits unless their conduct is “clearly established” as unconstitutional. The court acknowledged that teachers have a difficult job, and that the courts should not make it more so by exposing them to liability for doing things that they did not even know were illegal.

Without a doubt, this case is a victory for school officials. However, it also begs the question: what conduct is “clearly established” as unconstitutional? Forcing a student to say the pledge of allegiance would be a safe bet. But what about issues that are a closer call? What if school officials allow students to sing a disproportionate number of Christmas songs at a holiday program? It is difficult to predict exactly, but based on this holding, it seems as though courts are willing to give teachers the benefit of the doubt. At this point, they seem to be the only ones willing to do that.