MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. – A New Jersey high school student claims in a federal lawsuit that school administrators violated her First Amendment free-speech and religious-freedom rights when they said she couldn't participate in a day of silent protest against abortion.
The girl, identified in court papers as C.H., says she asked the Bridgeton High School principal last month for permission to join in the Pro Life Day of Silent Solidarity, a worldwide protest organized each year by Stand True, a ministry in Troy, Ohio. But the principal said no, telling her she couldn't do anything "religious," according to her lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Camden by a lawyer hired by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based legal group that takes on religious freedom cases on behalf of Christians. The organization sent an advisory before the day of protest that it would defend students who are barred from participating.
ADF senior counsel David Cortman says his group has intervened in dozens of cases across the country over the six years the protest has been held and has filed suits in about a dozen. He said some have been successful and others are still pending.
Cortman said the group has heard from students barred from protesting last month at two other New Jersey schools, as well as schools in Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas and Idaho.
When schools bar the protests, he said, they usually cite the separation of church and state — which his group says is not in the Constitution.
"The school district basically held that there is no religion allowed in school, which violates the students' First Amendment rights," Cortman said.
In the Bridgeton case, the student planned to remain silent on Oct. 20, except when called on in class at her public school. She also wanted to wear an armband with the word "life" on it and to hand out anti-abortion pamphlets. Some students who participate in the protest put tape across their mouths to show they're speaking for the unborn, who can't speak for themselves, Cortman said.
The Bridgeton girl says in the lawsuit she was later punished for attempting to share her views because school officials did not excuse two days of absence due to an illness in the family.
Now, the girl is seeking a court order to be allowed to conduct a protest.
Her lawyer, Michael Kiernan, referred calls on the case to ADF, which said that the student and her family — including her father, Ronald Hudak, who is also named as a plaintiff — were not going to be made available for comment.
H. Victor Gilson, the school superintendent in Bridgeton, said Tuesday that he hadn't seen the lawsuit yet, but the girl's request was denied for two reasons.
The armband would have violated the school's strict dress code, he said. He said it allows "no insignias unless it has to do with Bridgeton High School."
And he said the school has a policy that generally doesn't allow students or staff to distribute literature without prior approval. He says the policy is in place partly to guard against lawsuits like this one.
He said it's rare for a student to make such a request and said he could not recall the last time a student even asked to hand out materials.