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U.S. Appeals Court OKs Church Invites At Pennsylvania School

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Pennsylvania fifth-grader may distribute invitations to a church Christmas party at her public school because it won't cause a "substantial disruption," a U.S. appeals court panel ruled Tuesday.

The panel upheld a lower court's preliminary decision allowing the student — identified only as K.A. — to take the invitations into her Pocono Mountains school based on a free speech standard established in a Vietnam-era Supreme Court case involving a high school anti-war protest.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court noted the law is still evolving on how the case should affect elementary schools.

"The fact that K.A. was only in the fifth-grade and the invitation originated from her church does not mandate a different approach," Judge Thomas Vanaskie wrote in his 31-page opinion.

At the same time, the three-judge panel said schools can exert more control over younger students, given their age and maturity level. The court has previously said a preschooler could not distribute pencils promoting a Christian message to classmates.

In this case, the invitation described a 2010 Christmas party at Innovation Church in Mt. Pocono, with face painting, music and games. After some back and forth between the girl's father and school officials, the Pocono Mountain School District rejected the girl's request to distribute the flier.

In its ruling, the court noted that the district allowed some outside organizations to send fliers home with students about non-school events. Students were also permitted to distribute birthday party invitations, Valentines and other material.

The girl hoped "to share her religious faith with her classmates," according to the opinion.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., backed the family's appeal.

"America's public schools should recognize the constitutionally protected freedom of students who wish to hand out these kinds of fliers," said Matt Sharp, the group's legal counsel. "A flier cannot be banned just because some element of religious faith is a part of it. On the contrary, the First Amendment specifically protects religious speech."

Lawyer John Freund, who represented the school district, did not immediately return a message left at his office Tuesday.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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