District sued over policy banning religious eMail

A public interest group is suing a suburban Dallas school district over its policy banning employees from sending eMail containing religious messages. The conservative American Center for Law and Justice, based in Virginia Beach, Va., filed suit Aug. 1 in U.S. District Court in Dallas on behalf of LaDonna DeVore, a receptionist in the administrative offices of Highland Park Independent School District. DeVore sent a message through the district’s eMail system this spring about President Bush’s proclamation for a national day of prayer. In her eMail, DeVore reportedly wrote a note above the copied text of the president’s proclamation that said: “The following proclamation by our president is an incredible statement by the leader of the free world, and I encourage you to pass this on to your friends and colleagues to set the stage for the National Day of Prayer this Thursday, May 2.”

The eMail was sent to acquaintances within the school system and friends outside the district, according to the suit. District officials told DeVore her April 30 eMail was inappropriate and threatened to suspend her eMail privileges if she used the system again to send religious messages, the suit said. The district allows employees to use its eMail system for both work-related and “limited personal” purposes, but prohibits “commercial, for-profit purposes, political purposes, religious purposes, religious worship, or proselytizing,” according to the lawsuit.

This policy is unconstitutional because it unfairly singles out religious messages, said Stuart J. Roth, senior counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which was founded by evangelist Pat Robertson.

The suit contends that the policy violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. It requests that the court find the policy and actions of the school district unconstitutional and requests an injunction to prohibit the school district from continuing to enforce its policy. “The law is clear: If a school district permits employees to communicate a wide variety of both work-related and private messages, it cannot prohibit a message from being communicated because its content is religious in nature. The policy in place is not only discriminatory but unconstitutional as well,” Roth said.

The school district referred reporters to attorney William Banowsky, who did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Edwin Darden, senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association, said the district has the right to set reasonable limits on employees’ eMail use.

“If you say messages are open to everything, you could have individuals conducting the equivalent of church worships every day by eMail,” Darden said.

In this case, he said, the court will have to determine if DeVore’s eMail message was actually a form of “religious worship” or “proselytizing” as defined in the district’s policy.

Regardless of the court’s decision, it’s important for school leaders to write clear acceptable-use policies and regularly review these policies to address unthought-of or newly emerging issues, Darden said.

“The key is to sit down with a school attorney and think about what the parameters of the law are [with respect to] eMail,” he said.

See these related links:

Highland Park Independent School District http://www.hpisd.org

American Center for Law and Justice http://www.aclj.org

National School Boards Association http://www.nsba.org

President’s National Day of Prayer Proclamationhttp://www.whitehouse.gov/ news/releases/2002/04/20020426-2.html

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