The Marple Newtown board, (left to right) David McGinley, Carol DeLuca, Won Shin (seated), Jeff Shapiro, Nancy Galbraith, Ed Partridge, Richard Sokorai, Bob Moldoff and Dick Carpenter
A court decision that opens the doors of Culbertson Elementary School in Pennsylvania to books about witches – but rejects the Bible as being too “proselytizing” – is being challenged.
The Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund has submitted amicus briefs in a lawsuit filed when a kindergarten student, under an assignment in which parents were invited to read their child’s favorite book, was denied permission to have his mother read a Bible story.
A decision in U.S. District Court that sided with the school’s decision to ban the Bible reading, while allowing teachers to suggest reading books about “witches and Halloween,” effectively “sounds the death knell for religious freedom in public schools,” the ADF argues.
“By transmuting private religious speech into government speech, granting school officials carte blanche authority to determine what religious speech is ‘too religious,’ and holding that a school’s desire to avoid a perceived Establishment Clause violation justifies viewpoint discrimination, the lower court’s opinion permits a blatant violation of the Constitution,” the group said.
“The school’s decision to ban religious speech is nothing more than blatant viewpoint discrimination,” said ADF Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco. “This was not about proselytizing anyone,” continued ADF Senior Legal Counsel David Cortman. “It was about letting students tell the class about what things are important to them, and the Bible is important to this student.”
The classroom assignment was called “All About Me,” and was intended to provide an opportunity for children to “identify individual interests and learn about others,” the ADF said. The activity at the school – which lists an unspecified “religious holiday” in September but a “winter recess” in December – allowed students to talk about their interests through the use of their favorite stuffed animals, posters, snacks and games and books.
When his turn came, Culbertson Elementary student Wesley Busch asked his mother to read from his favorite book, the Bible. But the ADF said school officials told Donna Kay Busch that the school viewed the Bible as “proselytizing” and as “promoting a specific religious point of view,” banning it from the class.
Officials with the Marple Newtown School District had defended their actions as reasonable, and the trial court judge agreed.
However, the ADF’s brief argued “the lower court’s radical departure from settled First Amendment law poses a serious threat to religious expression.”
The brief noted that the school allowed discussion of religion in the “All About Me” assignment. “Because Wesley liked to go to church, he created a poster that included a picture of a church with the words, ‘I like to go to church’ below it. This poster was displayed on the wall.”
But the Bible reading Wesley requested was rejected because the Bible promotes “a specific religious point of view” and the teacher instead suggested Wesley’s mother “read a book ‘about witches and Halloween’ instead.”
The ADF said the district court erred in assuming that such private speech would be attributed to the school.
“Indeed, the Bible reading at issue in this case is Wesley’s speech: his mother came to the class at his request, to read his book selection, so that he could share himself with his classmates,” the ADF said.
The filing also noted the dangers the district court ruling left in its wake.
“The lower court presumes that certain religious speech – i.e., religious speech that crosses some indeterminate threshold where it becomes ‘too religious’ – automatically violates the Establishment Clause and thus may constitutionally be censored. This holding is plain legal error under controlling precedent. Moreover, it impermissibly interjects government officials into the affairs and doctrines of religion.”