Religious Candy Cane Case Enters 10th Year

Sunday, April 06, 2014
Doug and Jonathan Morgan in 2011 (photo: Dallas Observer)

In a case that threatens to outlive the shelf life of most fruitcakes, the Fifth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals on Wednesday affirmed a decision by a lower court that a principal who banned a parent from passing out religious-themed candy-cane shaped pens is immune from liability in the case.


Students at Thomas Elementary and other schools in Plano, Texas, held winter break parties during which they were allowed to give gift bags to their classmates. In one incident in 2001, a teacher removed from little Michaela Wade’s gift bag pencils that were printed with the message “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.”


In 2003, a teacher refused to let third-grader Jonathan Morgan pass out the pens attached to cards describing “The Legend of the Candy Cane.” Some Christians believe that the “J” shape of candy canes stands for Jesus and that the red stripes symbolize Jesus’ blood.


Jonathan’s parents and three other couples sued the school district in December 2004. Most of the claims were killed by a Fifth Circuit ruling in 2011 that granted immunity to most of the school officials named in the suit. Only a free-speech claim remained. That claim was dismissed in a District Court last year, and the dismissal affirmed on Wednesday.


The appeals court wrote that Doug Morgan, Jonathan’s father, failed to prove the right to distribute the religious materials “was so clearly established” that Principal Lynn Swanson is not entitled to qualified immunity. Educators are almost always immune from liability in First Amendment disputes unless there a “precise on point” precedent creating an exception, the appeals court said, according to Courthouse News Service. Essentially, the defendants were granted immunity because they were following policy, not acting out of any bias against religion.


One unusual facet of the case is that in the nine years since the case was first filed, there has been no trial, nor even any depositions taken. There has been no word from the plaintiff as to whether he’ll make the case part of Christmases yet to come.


The plaintiff’s case has been handled by the Liberty Institute, a conservative Plano-based group that has inserted itself into legal battles ranging from religion in public schools to gay rights.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

After 10 Years, Immunity Affirmed in Candy Cane Case (by David Lee, Courthouse News Service)

The Candy Cane Case: A Long and Difficult Journey (by Thomas P. Brandt and Joshua A. Skinner) (Fanning Harper Martinson Brandt & Kutchin (pdf)

Morgan v. Swanson Ruling (United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit) (pdf)


Jon Grumby 2 years ago
You really said: "group that has inserted itself into legal battles "? I bet you wouldn't use that language for the ACLU when they similarly seek to protect civil rights.

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