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When the Bible goes to school, the tug-of-war begins

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Charles C. Haynes
January 30, 2010

Fights over the Good Book in public schools have a long and ignoble history in the United States—from 19th century Bible Wars (when riots broke out over whose version of the Bible would be read in the morning) to current conflicts over Bible electives.


Now three-in-one-month legal developments in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee add fuel to the fiery rhetoric from all sides about when the Bible should come through the schoolhouse door.


This month in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, a small town with more than 30 churches, school officials finally wrapped up a year-long pre-termination hearing involving science teacher John Freshwater. A verdict is not expected for several months.


According to The New York Times, Freshwater is accused of invoking the Bible to teach science, posting the Ten Commandments and Scripture verses on his classroom wall, and otherwise using his position to proselytize kids.


The most bizarre charge, one Freshwater vehemently denies, comes from two students who say the teacher burned a cross onto their arms. According to Freshwater, he was merely putting a temporary X on the skin with a device called a Tesla coil during a science demonstration—something he says he has done hundreds of times over the years.


After months of debates and hearings (which, by the way, cost the school district more than a half million dollars), the town is bitterly divided between those who think Freshwater crossed the First Amendment line by pushing his faith in the classroom and those who are convinced he has done nothing wrong.


Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Donna Kay Busch lost a four-year legal battle against school officials who barred her from reading the Bible in her son’s kindergarten class. On Jan. 19, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Busch’s appeal of a lower court ruling in favor of the school district (Busch v. Marple Newton School District).


The contretemps began when Busch wanted to read a passage from Psalm 118 in response to the teacher’s request for parents to share something with the class about their child’s interests. Concerned that Bible reading in the classroom would violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against school-sponsored religion, school officials said no to Busch’s choice.


In siding with the school, the majority of a divided panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did what courts often do when young schoolchildren are involved: They deferred to school officials’ judgment about where to draw the line on religious expression in the classroom.


“Parents of public school kindergarten students,” said the majority, “may reasonably expect their children will not become captive audiences to an adult’s reading of religious texts.”


The dissenting judge saw the banning of Busch’s reading as viewpoint discrimination pure and simple.


“Donna Busch’s attempt to read Psalm 118 to her son’s class fell within the specified subject matter,” he wrote, “and the sole reason for excluding her speech was its religious character.”


Busch’s case is a close call with no bright-line solutions. On one hand, should a parent be prohibited from reading a Bible verse, especially when other parents are free to read from a variety of other sources? But on the other hand, do we really want courts telling school officials that they must allow parents to read sacred texts to young children? In tough cases like this, most courts prefer to err on the side of protecting kids from the possibility of religious indoctrination in the classroom.


Busch might have fared better had her son attended school in Wilson County, Tenn., where officials don’t bar outside adults from presenting the Bible to kids—they welcome them. But earlier this month, the practice of allowing the Gideons to distribute Bibles to Wilson County students during the school day ended after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue on behalf of a fifth-grade student.


Despite this flurry of legal decisions, the tug-of-war over the Bible in public schools will likely continue, with one side pulling the Scriptures in and the other side straining to keep them out.


To get beyond the fight, schools need to stay within the constitutional safe harbor created by current law. That means protecting the right of students to bring their Scriptures to school and share their faith with others (as long as they aren’t disruptive)—while making sure that educators teach about the Bible in literature and history in ways that are academically and constitutionally sound.


In other words, the Bible can go to school, but only through the First Amendment door.


Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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