Of Candy Canes And Football Helmets.

Candy-Cane-Holly-ROHLast December, first grade student Isaiah Martinez took candy canes to give as gifts to his classmates at Merced Elementary in the West Covina Unified School District (CA).

Isaiah seems to have been fascinated by the “legend of the candy cane” and printed a card that he attached to each candy cane. The card read:

A candy maker wanted to make a candy that would be a witness, so he made the CHRISTmas Candy Cane to incorporate several symbols for the birth, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ.

He began with a stick of pure white, hard candy. White, to symbolize the Virgin Birth, the sinless nature of Jesus, and hard to symbolize the Solid Rock, the foundation of the church, and firmness of the promises of God.

The candy maker made the candy in the form of a “J” to represent the precious name of Jesus, who came to earth as our savior. It also represents the staff of the “Good Shepherd” with which He reaches down into the ditches of the world to lift out the fallen lambs who, like all sheep, have gone astray.

The candy maker stained it with red stripes. He used the three small stripes to show the stripes of the scourging Jesus received by which we are healed. The large red stripe was for the blood shed by Jesus on the Cross so that we could have the promise of eternal life, if only we put our faith and trust in Him.

Unfortunately, the candy became known as a Candy Cane — a meaningless decoration seen at Christmas time. But the meaning is still there for those who “have eyes to see and ears to hear”.

I pray that this symbol will again be used to witness to the Wonder of Jesus and His Great Love that came down at Christmas and remains the ultimate and dominant force in the universe today.

When Isaiah turned in his candy canes for the Christmas party, his teacher noticed the card attached to the candy canes. The teacher took possession of the candy canes and proceeded to confer with the school principal.

Advocates for Faith & Freedom,” a group who represents Isaiah and his family, describes what happened next:

On approximately December 18, 2013 [Isaiah’s teacher] Ms. Lu spoke to [school principal] Mr. Pfitzer who instructed Ms. Lu that Isaiah was not permitted to distribute his Christmas gift because it contained a religious message. Ms. Lu then spoke to Isaiah and told him that “Jesus is not allowed at school.” In fear that he was in some sort of trouble, Isaiah then watched as Ms. Lu proceeded to rip the candy cane legend off of each candy cane and then throw the Christian messages back in to the box. He then watched as the box and messages were thrown into the trash by Ms. Lu. She then told Isaiah that he could distribute the candy canes now that the Christian messages were eliminated. (emphasis ours)

Isaiah’s 21 year old sister talked with her brother and then got involved.

On December 20, 2013 Alexandra contacted Mr. Pfitzer. Mr. Pfitzer told Alexandra that he consulted with the school district administration by speaking with Ms. Sheryl Lesikar with regard to whether Isaiah would be permitted to hand out the Christmas gift at school. He told Alexandra that pursuant to his discussion with Ms. Lesikar, that neither he nor the school district would permit Isaiah to distribute the candy cane legend because of its religious content. Mr. Pfitzer informed Alexandra that Ms. Lesikar had sent an email to Isaiah’s parents explaining that Isaiah was not permitted to distribute the Christmas gift or any religious materials on school grounds.

In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the US Supreme Court ruled that students, teachers and employees do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Further rulings have clarified that students may engage in religious activities during non-instructional time.

For the teacher and the principal to say that Isaiah could not distribute religious materials on school grounds is absurdly wrong.

Yet despite the principal and teacher being wrong on both when and where Isaiah could distribute hand out the candy canes, the school board doubled down on the “wrongness” by backing the principal and the teacher.

West Covina Unified School District Superintendent Debra Kaplan said the district has not been served and so she cannot comment on the lawsuit. However, she said after Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which is backing the lawsuit, filed an initial complaint in January, the district investigated the situation and concluded no state or federal laws were violated.

The complaint was also brought before the school board, which determined Martinez’s First Amendment rights had not been violated, Kaplan said.

“After reviewing the district’s policies, the board determined a student can distribute materials on campus before school, after school or during lunch. But it cannot be during instructional time. Isaiah was told this … but he never did bring them back to school to do that,” she said. (emphasis ours)

The School District says Isaiah may distribute religious materials on campus during non-instructional hours (contradicting the principal and the teacher.)

The Department of Justice agrees:

Individual student expression may not be suppressed simply because it is religious. For example, the Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case of a group of Massachusetts high school students who were suspended for handing out candy canes to other students with religious messages attached. The court agreed that the students’ First Amendment rights had been violated.

The School Board then must have believed that the attempted distribution must have occurred during instructional time.

As Isaiah tried to hand out the candy canes during the class party, we wonder what curriculum has a course on “Christmas Parties with First Graders?” Is that part of math? Reading? Science? Is there a standardized test for “Christmas Parties?”

However, assume for a moment that the Christmas party was part of “instructional time” and Isaiah was told he could bring a gift for other children as part of the “instructional party.”

According to the Department of Education, the school cannot discriminate on the basis of the content of his work during instructional periods:

Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Such home and classroom work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school. Thus, if a teacher’s assignment involves writing a poem, the work of a student who submits a poem in the form of a prayer (for example, a psalm) should be judged on the basis of academic standards (such as literary quality) and neither penalized nor rewarded on account of its religious content.

That means if the party took place during non-instructional time, the school cannot prevent young Isaiah from handing out his gifts with a religious message. If the party was during an “instructional period,” the school cannot discriminate there as well as the gift giving was part of an assignment during the instructional period.

Furthermore, according to Advocates for Faith & Freedom, other children gave out gifts with secular messages on them.

Meanwhile, other students in Isaiah’s class handed out Christmas gifts to their fellow classmates. Some of these gifts expressed secular messages concerning Christmas and were packaged with images of Santa Claus, penguins with Santa hats, Christmas trees, and other secular messages through images and writings.

Additionally, one student handed out a package that was wrapped in paper wherein its contents were not visible until unwrapped. Ironically, this gift included a candy cane and the legend of the candy cane. Had the student informed school officials of the contents of his or her gift, the student would have been prohibited from distributing the contraband.

There is no way around this: Isaiah was prevented from passing out his candy canes because of the content of the card attached to them.

That, dear readers, is a violation of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education.

Advocates for Faith & Freedom have filed a lawsuit to right this wrong. The sad thing is the School District will defend this lawsuit using taxpayer funds in a vain effort to prevent a student from having the same rights as other children in his school.

(image courtesy of

(image courtesy of

Of much greater difficulty and less clear is the Arkansas State University football team and a tribute to two fallen members of their team.

This past year, 21 year old defensive lineman Markel Owens was shot and killed in a robbery – home invasion. His step-father, Johnny Shivers was also killed in the attack. Additionally, Owens’ mother was also shot but later recovered.

In January, one of the football team managers, Barry Weyer, was tragically killed in a car accident.

To honor the two members of the team, the team’s Leadership Council met and decided to print decals with a cross and the the initials of both men – MO and BW – on the cross member of the cross. Team members could wear the sticker on their helmets voluntarily if they chose to do so.

However, after the helmets were seen on a broadcast where Arkansas State played the University of Tennessee, the school received a complaint.

According to documents provided to USA Today by Arkansas State, Jonesboro, Ark., attorney Louis Nisenbaum sent an email to University Counsel Lucinda McDaniel on Saturday, pointing out that he noticed the crosses while watching Arkansas State’s game at Tennessee earlier that day.

“That is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause as a state endorsement of the Christian religion,” Nisenbaum wrote. “Please advise whether you agree and whether ASU will continue this practice.”

On Monday, McDaniel emailed [athletics director Terry] Mohajir, saying she found no specific legal cases that addressed crosses on football helmets but recommending that the bottom of the cross could be cut off so the symbol would be a plus sign.

“While we could argue that the cross with the initials of the fallen student and trainer merely memorialize their passing, the symbol we have authorized to convey that message is a Christian cross,” she wrote. “Persons viewing the helmets will, and have, seen the symbol as a cross and interpreted that symbol as an endorsement of the Christian religion. This violates the legal prohibition of endorsing religion.”

We think this turns on whether the cross is religious speech by the school, or speech initiated by students.

According to the Department of Education:

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer. Accordingly, the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by private individuals, and the line between government-sponsored and privately initiated religious expression is vital to a proper understanding of the First Amendment’s scope. As the Court has explained in several cases, “there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect.” (emphasis in original)

To us, we see the stickers not as something the school initiated – the team did. The school is not endorsing a religion. The team is remembering two fallen teammates to whom their beliefs were important and a focus of their lives.

There have been some legitimate questions raised on this issue. For example:

    Would you support the sticker if it were a Muslim flag, or an atheism symbol?

    Yep. We would. If that is what the deceased players believed and the team wanted to honor their memory, we have no problems with a different sticker. We don’t see the sticker as a endorsement of what the teammates believed, but rather an acknowledgement of what they believed.

    Why not design the sticker in some other manner or design?

    We don’t believe the way to honor and remember the deceased is to hide what they stood for or who they were at their core. We think that pushing aside who they were in order not to offend someone who does not believe as they did is political correctness run amuck and a distortion of the intent and language of the First Amendment.

The Arkansas State helmet controversy seems to hinge on the perception of the viewer. The argument is someone may take the sticker as a state endorsement of religion, and therefore the sticker must be banned. Instead of that viewer taking a few minutes to educate themselves on the meaning of the sticker, their perceived “offended-ness” trumps everything else.

We suggest that offended parties go up to the families, friends and teammates of Markel Owens and Barry Weyer and tell them that the person is offended by the stickers meant to remember teammates and friends who departed this earth far too soon.

Let us know how that turns out because we don’t think it will be pretty.

The irony for us is that in both cases there is a lack of education – a lack of knowledge – at two educational institutions.

What are we to do when we have teachers and educators who cannot understand and or support basic freedoms?

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