RENO, Nev. (AP) — An evangelical Christian church in Nevada says its First Amendment rights are being violated by a rural school district’s ban on promotional flyers the church wants to distribute at a school community program along with other charitable organizations.
Lawyers for Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley sent a letter to the Lyon County School District this week demanding equal access to its community flyer distribution program.
Under the title of “Unconstitutional Censorship of Religious Viewpoints,” they suggest the district east of Reno could face a lawsuit if they fail to change current policy.
The policy adopted in July states 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 prohibits flyers that are “intended to promote a partisan political cause/candidate, promote a religious opinion/belief, are propagandistic or proselytizing.”
District officials maintain the policy is legal. They said in a statement provided to The Associated Press on Friday they were caught by surprise by the criticism and have offered to meet with church officials to discuss their concerns.
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.
Amber Williams, a private Las Vegas-based lawyer, said in the Nov. 28 letter that the district 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.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “school employees, like all government actors, are required to remain neutral with respect to private religious speech,” Williams wrote. Because the district distributes “substantially similar flyers from a secular perspective,” she said the school must treat flyers “from a religious perspective” in the same manner.
“They may not single out a church’s flyers for censorship, and they may not force a church to scrub the flyers of any religious language,” added Stephanie Taub, a lawyer for First Liberty. “That is hostility toward religion.”
District spokeswoman Erika Garcia said in a statement emailed to AP that the district “has always enjoyed a good relationship with this church.”
Among other things, the district allows the church to host an after-school program at Dayton Elementary School and has provided volunteers to help set up tables at family nights “while wearing shirts with church identifying logos,” she said.
An assistant pastor for Calvary Chapel attended one of the two public meetings on the policy adopted on July 25, but “did not comment or provide any input,” she said.
Garcia said they want to meet with church leaders and their lawyers to explain “our view as to why the policy is legal and in compliance with all constitutional standards and, more importantly, to address any concerns they may have.”