A school district in North Carolina has been given a deadline to affirm that it will not censor a student’s speech, or a legal team assembled by the Alliance Defending Freedom will seek a “remedy” to the problem.
The issue arose several days ago when the school district told a first-grade student that a poem commemorating her grandfathers’ military service could not include the word “God,” because one member of the community didn’t like it.
But in a letter sent from ADF to the McDowell County Schools in Marion, N.C., the lawyers pointed out that the censorship “was a violation of her First Amendment rights.”
“A first-grader at the school was told that she had to remove references to ‘God’ in a poem she wrote to honor her grandfathers’ service to our country during the Vietnam War,” the letter said. “In her poem, she had included the lines ‘He prayed to God for peace, he prayed to God for strength,’ to describe the historical actions of her grandfathers during the war. However, after a community member complained about the inclusion of the student’s poem in a Veteran’s Day Ceremony, the school forced her to remove the lines.”
ADF told the school it’s “a fundamental principle of constitutional law that school officials may not suppress or exclude the personal speech of students simply because the speech is religious or contains a religious perspective.”
“This principle cannot be denied without eviscerating the essential First Amendment guarantees of free speech and religious freedom,” ADF said.
ADF noted that many school officials incorrectly think allowing a student to express a religious idea violates the “separation of church and state.” But, the letter said, the Supreme Court never had held that the Constitution requires “complete separation of church and state.”
“The court has merely held that the establishment clause of the First Amendment requires the state to be neutral in its relations with religious believers and non-believers.”
Further, the student’s speech is private, not government speech, the letter explains.
“The censorship of this young student’s poem about her grandfather is repugnant to the First Amendment rights of all students and sends an impermissible message of hostility towards religion,” the letter said. “What’s next? A student being told that she can’t publicly recite the Gettysburg Address because President Lincoln refers to ‘this nation, under God’ or the Declaration of Independence because of references to the ‘laws … of nature’s God’ and the rights endowed to all people ‘by their creator.’”
School officials could not be reached for comment. But a statement posted prominently on the website from Supt. Gerri Martin said: “I am looking forward to collaborating with the board, our attorney, and our community to revise policy and create guidelines that will ensure the rights of free speech and freedom of religion consistent not only with the conscience of this community but the requirements the law places on us as a public school system.”
Legal Counsel Matt Sharp said America’s public schools “should encourage, not restrict, the constitutionally protected freedom of students to express their faith.”
“Students should not be censored when speaking about their faith or honoring those who valiantly served to protect our freedoms,” he said. “The poem described the historical actions of her grandfather, and the Constitution protects such student expression at school.”
The student attends West Marion Elementary School in the McDowell County School District.