PLANO, Texas – Last year, school officials told 9-year-old Jonathan Morgan he couldn't give classmates Christian-themed candy canes at his elementary school´s "winter break" party.
On Thursday, a federal judge told him he can.
U.S. District Judge Paul Brown (search) in Sherman ordered the 52,000-student Plano school district to let students distribute "religious viewpoint gifts" at school parties scheduled for Friday.
"It's a huge win for students in Plano schools and it´s a big bolster for Jonathan," said Doug Morgan, Jonathan´s father. "He really feels affirmed that exercising his right of religious expression in public is appropriate."
Brown's four-page order came a day after the Morgans and three other families filed a federal lawsuit accusing the district north of Dallas of banning Christmas and religious expression from their children´s classrooms.
The judge said his initial review of the lawsuit and testimony at a hearing Thursday convinced him the plaintiffs would suffer "irreparable" damage and "immediate" injury if he did not act. He cited "a substantial likelihood that Plaintiffs will prevail on the merits."
Richard Abernathy, the school district's attorney, said he respected the judge's order. But Abernathy said the order was unnecessary because the district recently decided to allow the distribution of all materials -- religious or otherwise -- at Friday's parties. That decision was shared with campus administrators Dec. 1, he said.
Asked if the policy was communicated to parents, Abernathy replied, "If it was, it wasn't done very well."
The lawsuit charges that the district has engaged in "unconstitutional and illegal actions," from prohibiting candy canes and pencils with religious messages to banning red and green napkins at holiday parties.
Citing "the policy on distribution of school materials and non-school materials," a letter sent to parents at Jonathan´s school on Dec. 6 urged parents to limit party supplies to "approved items," including white plates and white napkins. Abernathy said the letter was written by a parent, not a school official. He speculated that white items were suggested to represent the color of snow.
According to the 161-page petition, "continual efforts to ban Christmas" from Plano schools prompted the lawsuit.
Hiram Sasser, director of litigation with Liberty Legal Institute (search), which represents the plaintiffs, said Thursday´s order was needed because the district´s written policy precludes dissemination of religious materials in the classroom.
"With the weird flip-flopping, parents just don´t know what students can and can't do and it needed to be clear," Sasser said, calling the verbal policy change "just a sham."
Doug Morgan said his family joined the lawsuit because Thomas Elementary School (search) refused to let his son pass out "goody bags" last year with pens shaped like candy canes and an accompanying story titled "The Legend of the Candy Cane."
The legend suggests that the candy cane was invented by a man who wanted to pay tribute to Jesus Christ. The candy maker chose hard candy "because Christ is the Rock of Ages" and shaped it like a "J" for Jesus, according to the story.
In a letter to parents posted Thursday on the Plano schools Web site, Deputy Superintendent Danny Modisette wrote that the district "fosters acceptance of all cultures and welcomes the celebration of our diversity during the Winter Break parties."
"The winter parties that many campuses celebrate during the final days of the first semester have been declared non-instructional time during the event, which allows students and parents to exchange holiday greetings and items with others," Modisette wrote.
Earlier Thursday, the U.S. Justice Department said it is investigating the allegations and asked the plaintiffs' attorneys to provide copies of all pleadings, affidavits, exhibits and other correspondence involved in the lawsuit.
In a letter to Liberty Legal Institute, Justice Department official Jeremiah Glassman said the preliminary inquiry concerns the district´s "alleged refusal to permit students to distribute religious messages during parties and on school property."
"We stress that the Department has not made any determination about the merits of the allegations but is simply conducting a preliminary inquiry into the matter," Glassman wrote.
Abernathy said he had received a letter from the Justice Department about the inquiry but could not comment because he had not had time to review it.
Sasser said the inquiry pleased him: "It is great to have a Justice Department that cares about religious freedom."