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Attorneys: School violated student preacher’s first amendment rights

An Everett student is suing the school district after he said he was suspended in violation of his free speech rights. (AP Photo)
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Michael Leal, an Everett high school student who is suing the district after he was suspended for preaching and handing out Christian pamphlets, says his free speech rights were violated.

Leal told KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz he wasn’t interrupting class with his preaching, but he was suspended three times in October at Cascade High School.

“I do it during non-instructional times,” Leal said. “So in the halls and passing times, or free time. We have this period in school – it’s called pause, we have a free class. We also have lunch and that’s also free time as well, and before and after school.”

Leal’s legal team told Rantz it’s clear, after looking at the facts, that his first amendment rights were being violated.

“We really looked into the facts to make sure Michael wasn’t someone who was screaming at kids, that he was sharing his propensities with a loving attitude, not one of hostility or harassment, (and that he) wasn’t disrupting the classroom,” said Brad Dacus, President and Founder of the Pacific Justice Institute.

But in a suspension notice cited by the SeattlePI, the school indicated it determined his “boisterous conduct of religious material impinged on rights of other students.”

When asked about a student’s report to local media saying that Leal said ‘God hates service members in the Army’ and ‘God hates gay people,’ Leal said that he’s never said anything like that.

“No. That’s not true. That was a complete lie. Actually, my father is a 22-year veteran in the Army. My uncle is in the Navy and I have a lot of family in the military, so that’s not true. I never preached that,” Leal said. “About homosexuals, I never said that God hates homosexuals. What I do preach though, about homosexuality, is it is a sin, and just like any other sin, it has to be punished. That punishment is eternal hell fire and unless one repents, turns from their sins and follows Jesus, they shall not see the kingdom of God.”

Leal said he wouldn’t specifically target homosexuals and that he doesn’t aim his preachings at individuals.

“I preach the same message to everyone. I don’t single out people. I don’t pick on people because of their gender or their race. I just preach the full counsel of God – repent from your sins, turn to Christ, have everlasting life.”

Leal and his legal counsel believe there is a line that could be crossed, but they don’t think Leal’s behavior is harassment.

“If someone is being harassing, harassing other students – let’s say a speaker is there and he’s pointing at other students saying, you’re going to hell and you’re this and you’re that and really attacking students – that crosses the line. That becomes harassment,” Dacus said. “But Michael is not doing that. He’s just sharing the good news that changed his life.”

It’s very normal, Dacus said, for believers to want to share their faith with other people.

“That’s all he’s doing and that is something that should not be stoppable, no more than a student wishing to share his passion about football or the latest CD he’s listening to.”

Dacus said youth passions are wide-ranging and they shouldn’t have to exclude passion that is based on faith.

“It should never ever be discouraged by public schools,” Dacus said. “There should be proper constraints with regard to harassment, but if you talk to Michael, you can tell that he’s on board with that as well. He’s not a harassing young man. He’s just a man excited about his personal relationship with God. I think that’s something the school should be very tolerant and accommodating to, just as they are to other kinds of speech under the umbrella of tolerance.”

The legal team is trying to provide protections for Leal so he can continue sharing his beliefs in accordance with his free speech rights, said Dacus.

“What we’re asking for right now is a temporary restraining order,” Dacus said, “which will protect his ability to pass out gospel tracks to those who would like to have them or be able to verbally share his faith for those wishing to stand and listen to him.”

Dacus said previous cases have determined students’ free speech rights don’t end at the school gates.

“So he’s got a very strong case. I think he has really good attitude about the case and how he’s handling himself. I believe he’ll continue to do what he’s doing as long we can get the legal protection for him to do so.”

The Rantz Show is seeking comment from the school district.

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