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By Jack Minor
An attorney for a then-4th-grader who was prohibited by school officials from holding a Bible study with his friends at recess time says an appeals court will be hearing the case to clear up misunderstandings – and even misrepresentations – about the situation.
Jonathan Scruggs, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, said school officials admitted multiple times that Bible studies were not permitted at recess, so the district’s statements that the controversy developed out of a misunderstanding are incorrect.
And, he said, there are important constitutional issues involved.
It was in 2004 when Luke Whitson, then a 4th grader at Karns Elementary School in Knoxville, Tenn., would gather with other students under a tree at recess to discuss and study the Bible.
The discussions were entirely student led with no adult participation.
During recess it was common for students to gather and discuss other topics such as written materials, American Girl doll magazines and elementary age books such as Harry Potter, the case documents.
After a parent complained about the students reading and discussing the Bible, the school’s principal, Cathy Summa, stopped the students from holding their study; citing district policy that only permitted students to read and discuss the Bible during “free time” which was described as being before and after school.
She said district policy considers recess to be “instructional time” and subject to the same restrictions as classroom time.
Whitson’s father went to talk to the principal about the incident, and said Summa confirmed she had stopped the studies over concerns of a violation of “separation of church and state.”
After failing to find a remedy, the family through their attorney sent a letter to the superintendent and the school board asking for a change of policy to permit Bible reading during recess. Rather than respond to the letter, the board and officials issued a series of statements defending the ban on Bible studies.
In a letter sent to parents, Summa, said: “Earlier this year, three elementary age students approached me asking if they could have a Bible study group at school during recess. I also met with [sic] parent of one of these children to ask the same question. My response was that children could not have a Bible study class during the school day.”
A week later the district reiterated its stance in a press release defending Summa’s actions.
“I indicated to the students and the parents that I did not feel that organized activity of this type is appropriate during the school day,” said Summa. “While we do not discourage students from reading at recess, I think a daily planned activity that is stationary or physically static in nature defeats the purpose of recess. The purpose is to give students an opportunity to have some physical activity during the day.”
She continued, “I think it is wonderful if a student wants to read the Bible or anything else recess … However, I would become concerned if the same student or students are not participating in recess day after day.”
Scruggs said the press release was reviewed by Supt. Charles Lindsey, Russ Oaks, a spokesman for the district and the Knox County law department prior to its release to ensure it accurately reflected board policies.
Additionally, an article in the Knoxville News Sentinel quotes Summa saying, “children could not have a Bible study during the school day.”
Later, during the trial, the writer, education reporter Ericka Mellon, testified that all statements and paraphrases in the 2005 story were accurate representations of statements given to her during interviews.
Based on the district’s clear statements that officials would not be permitting students to read the Bible at recess, the ADF filed a suit against the district for violating Whitson’s constitutional rights.
In a countersuit, Summa sought $3 million from Whitson for compensatory and punitive damages.
Despite its previous admissions, at trial the defense argued that the district did not violate Whitson’s constitutional right, but instead the whole event was based on a misunderstanding.
District lawyers claimed that when Summa told the students they could not hold a Bible study she was under the impression they were asking to have the studies led by an adult, which would not be allowed during school hours, but that the district had no issues with students holding their own studies.
The defense also attempted to place the blame for the incident on Luke, arguing that he could have resolved the issue if he had taken it to the upper level administrators in the district.
Prior to deliberations, the jury was not given instructions that there was no law requiring an individual to exhaust all administrative remedies prior to filing a suit. After the jury ruled in favor of the district, the ADF appealed the case because of the errors in the lower court proceedings.
The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio now has announced it will hear the case.
Scruggs said much of the reporting on the case is inaccurate and based on half-truths.
In articles on the appeals court taking the case, many outlets have said the case is moot because the district has already changed its policy to allow Bible studies and the family is simply interested in pursuing “monetary damages.”
Scruggs said the statement that the district has changed its policy is simply not true.
“They have never changed their policy. The board considered changing its policy to label recess ‘discretionary time’ which would permit students to have Bible studies during that time, however the policy change was never adopted.”
Regarding the monetary claim, Scruggs pointed out the amount his client is seeking is only $1.
“What they really want is an admission by the district that they did in fact violate Luke’s constitutional rights,” he said.