More than three years have elapsed since that morning on February 9, 1996, when first-grader Zachary Hood of Medford, New Jersey, stood up to read his favorite story to the rest of the class–his reward for reaching a certain degree of reading proficiency. What happened next is the subject of a lawsuit, filed by Zachary’s parents, that now awaits a ruling from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
Zachary chose a story called “The Big Family,” a simple tale about two brothers, Jacob and Esau, who quarrel and then make up. Although the story is from the Bible, it does not mention the Bible or God. Nevertheless, Zachary’s teacher stopped him from reading the story to the class, claiming that it was religious. Reportedly humiliated, Zachary sat down.
This was not the first time that Zachary’s expression of religious belief had been censored by school employees. During the previous year, children in the class had been instructed to make individual posters of something they were thankful for. Zachary’s poster said he was thankful for Jesus. The teacher placed the posters on the wall, but a school employee removed Zachary’s because of its religious nature. The poster later was placed in a less-prominent position.
The school’s reaction to these student assignments is surprising in light of the U.S. Department of Education’s 1995 guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools:
“Students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. Such home and classroom work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school.”
Zachary’s mother was certainly surprised. When she asked the school for an explanation, she got several. The teacher said the Bible was not allowed in a public school. The principal said the story was the equivalent of prayer, which was not allowed in a public school. Although the teacher offered to let Zachary read his story to her privately, she refused to let him read it to the class, a decision that was backed by the school district and the state department of education.
Zachary’s mother filed suit against the school district and others for violating her son’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression. Her case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in 1997. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling in 1998, the appeals court subsequently withdrew its decision in response to a petition filed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Oral arguments were heard on June 2, 1999, and a new decision from the Third Circuit Court is pending.
“The government requires the school to be neutral to religion, and this is being hostile to religion,” Becket Fund attorney Eric Treene told The Christian Science Monitor. The Becket Fund believes that the censorship of Zachary’s story reading–based solely on the fact that his story originated in the Bible–constitutes discrimination against religion, a violation of the First Amendment.
More information on the suit is available at the Becket Fund’s Web site, www.becketfund.org. The U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines for Religious Expression in Public Schools is available on the Internet at www.ed.gov/Speeches/08_1995/religion.html.