EVERETT, Wash. — A federal judge in Washington has ruled partly in favor of a high school student who was repeatedly suspended last year over his evangelistic activities on campus, ordering the punishments on his record to be expunged.
As previously reported, Michael Leal, a senior at Cascade High School in Everett, was suspended several times last year because of his efforts to share his Christian faith with his classmates. Leal distributed gospel literature to students and also preached in the open air a school event.
According to the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), which represented the teen in court, Leal was told that he faced expulsion if he continued his activities, which the school has claimed is a “disruption” on campus.
According to the Post-Intelligencer and the complaint filed in court last November, the situation began in early September when Leal distributed copies of the booklet “How to Know God” during his lunch period. He was escorted to the principal’s office and told that his actions could be offensive.
The following month, Leal again handed out tracts during the school’s “bonfire bash” and decided to preach as well, speaking on God’s law and the gospel. But he was soon approached by Principal Cathy Woods, who asked him to stop. When he continued preaching, school officials called the police, who talked with Leal, but did not stop him from his activities. However, the following day, the student was suspended from school over the incident.
Days later, Leal attempted to hand out tracts at an after school volleyball game, but was again confronted. He was told that he needed Woods’ permission to distribute the materials, but was allegedly told by Woods that she would be “breaking the law” if she allowed him to continue.
The following day, Leal went back to handing out the pamphlets during his lunch period and the non-instructional time in class. He was suspended for the third time for the “distribution of religious material and failure to comply with school rules.”
In communicating with PJI, which Leal then contacted about the matter, Cascade High School attorney Michael Patterson asserted that the student wasn’t targeted because of his Christian speech, but rather because he was labeled a “disruption.” The school district also noted that its literature distribution policy only allowed Leal to hand out materials that he had written himself. Pre-printed material is prohibited.
PJI went on to file a lawsuit over the matter, and during the early stages of the suit, the district created a “free speech zone” for students like Leal to preach and engage in free speech activities.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly, appointed to the bench by then-President Ronald Reagan, ruled partly in favor of Leal, mandating that the punishments against the student be removed from his record. He also found the district’s requirement that materials must be “written and/or produced by students” to be unconstitutional.
However, Zilly upheld the remainder of the school’s distribution policy.
“The court explicitly found the district’s policy neutral as to the content of material being distributed,” district attorney Sarah Heineman said in a statement.
It was also agreed upon that the suspensions were not a result of religious discrimination.
Leal’s attorneys state that they are pleased with the outcome, although the district says that it is considering an appeal.
“Today’s win is a well-deserved graduation present to our client,” PJI President Brad Dacus told reporters. “He should not have been suspended for simply handing other students gospel tracts, and today’s ruling is a vindication of our efforts on his behalf.”
Leal graduates on June 10.