The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last week threw out claims in the much-publicized “candy cane” litigation, finding that the family did not comply with strict notice requirements in the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA). The case, Morgan v. Plano ISD , involved claims that school officials prevented a third grader from distributing at a winter break party, a “candy cane ink pen” with a laminated card containing a religious message about the Christian origins of the candy cane.

Over the past six years, the courts have been considering whether the district’s actions violated the student’s First Amendment rights and the TRFRA. The issue in this appeal was whether the parents had properly provided notice to the district under the rules set out in the TRFRA. The law provides that a “government agency may not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion” unless the burden is in “furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and is “the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”

Under the Act, however, a person may not bring suit unless, “60 days before bringing the action, the person gives written notice to the government agency by certified mail, return receipt requested: (1) that the person’s free exercise of religion is substantially burdened by an exercise of the government agency’s governmental authority; (2) of the particular act or refusal to act that is burdened; and (3) of the manner in which the exercise of governmental authority burdens the act or refusal to act.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 110.006.

The Fifth Circuit observed that, as a public school district, Plano ISD enjoyed governmental immunity from suit, absent a waiver effected by clear and unambiguous language. Section 110.006 of the TRFRA requires pre-suit notice in the form of certified mail, return receipt requested, 60 days prior to filing suit. Texas Government Code § 311.034 further provides that “[s]tatutory prerequisites to a suit, including the provision of notice, are jurisdictional requirements in all suits against a governmental entity.” Although that language in § 311.034 was not added to the statute until after the Morgan’s filed suit, the Texas Supreme Court held in 2010 that § 311.034 applies to cases pending at the time of its enactment.

In this case, it was undisputed that the Morgans had not provided notice of their claims by certified mail, return receipt requested. The record showed that the Morgans had exchanged emails with an assistant superintendent and met personally with the school principal to express their concerns. The Morgans’ attorney also sent a demand letter to the school principal via fax and U.S. mail that outlined their specific complaints. The attorney emailed that same letter to the superintendent, deputy superintendent, and all members of the district’s board of trustees. According to the Fifth Circuit, because it was undisputed that the Morgans’ delivery of the demand letter did not strictly comply with the TRFRA jurisdictional pre-suit notice requirements, the district was entitled to governmental immunity. The appeals court, therefore, dismissed the Morgans’ TRFRA claims for lack of jurisdiction.

The main take-away here is that the 5th Circuit strictly construed TRFRA’s notice requirements as jurisdictional. This is an important decision for attorneys representing school districts in these types of cases, as it offers one line of defense during the early stages of litigation brought under the TRFRA, or any other statute that establishes “prerequisites to a suit.” The “candy cane case” is not over yet, however. Still pending are various constitutional challenges against the way that the district applied its student distribution policy to elementary school students when it refused the distribution of religious material at school.

Read more about this important decision in the next issue of the Texas School Administrators’ Legal Digest. For more school news follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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