January 14, 2003

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP)--High school students who were suspended for handing out candy canes with religious messages to classmates are suing school officials, claiming their First Amendment rights were violated.

Six of the seven Westfield High students who received one-day, in-school suspensions took part in the lawsuit filed Monday in federal court. They are asking a judge to declare unconstitutional the school's rule against distributing anything unrelated to school activities.

``This policy chills their speech,'' said lawyer Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, a religious civil liberties group based in Orlando, Fla. ``It puts them in a position where they have to give up their freedom of speech for fear they might be disciplined.''

Superintendent Thomas McDowell has said the school system follows federal guidelines that schools not make separate rules governing distribution of religious and non-religious material.

Because students are not allowed to hand out anything unrelated to the curriculum, the students were told they could not pass out the candy, McDowell said.

The students, members of the school's Bible club, said they asked the principal just before Christmas if they could hand out the candy canes and religious messages. The principal said no, but the students went ahead anyway, passing out about 450 canes with notes that said the ``J'' shape stood for Jesus and the red and white stripes symbolized Christ's blood and purity.

They also included a prayer and a message that read in part, ``It is not a prayer that saves you. It is trusting Jesus Christ that saves you.''

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