In a 2-1 decision, a federal appeals court has ruled that school officials did not violate the free speech rights of a kindergartner and his mother when they refused to allow Donna Busch to read a selection from the Bible as part of a classroom “All About Me” program intended to spotlight her son Wesley and his favorite book, the Bible. In appealing to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute had argued that school officials violated the Busches’ First Amendment rights by discriminating against them based on the religious nature of the selected reading.
“By excluding religious expression, and Christian expression and symbols in particular, from the classroom, school officials have exhibited the kind of hostility toward religion that should never be found in an American public school,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “If these situations continue, there will be absolutely no freedom for religious people in public schools in this country.”
The case began in October 2004, when Donna Busch accepted an invitation to visit her son Wesley’s kindergarten classroom at Culbertson Elementary School in Newtown Square, Penn., and read an excerpt of Wesley’s favorite book to his classmates. Wesley’s teacher had invited Mrs. Busch because Wesley was the featured student of “All About Me,” a school program intended to feature a particular student during the week and emphasize that student’s personal characteristics, preferences and personality in classroom activities.
One activity made available to all featured students during “All About Me” is the opportunity to have the child’s parent read aloud from his or her favorite book. Wesley, a Christian, had chosen the Bible as his favorite book, and Mrs. Busch planned to read an excerpt from Psalm 118. However, on the day of the reading, Wesley’s teacher directed Mrs. Busch not to read the passage until the principal had determined if it could be read to the class. When Principal Thomas Cook was summoned, he informed Mrs. Busch that she could not read from the Bible in the classroom because it was against the law and that the reading would violate the “separation of church and state.”
In filing suit against the Marple Newtown school district in May 2005, Institute attorneys alleged that the reading incident was just one example of the school’s efforts to suppress the right of Christians to freely express their religious beliefs. For example, although Mrs. Busch was not permitted to read from the Bible, another parent was allowed to read a book about Judaism; teach the class the dreidel game; and display a menorah in celebration of Hanukkah.
In upholding the lower court’s ruling, the court of appeals held that “educators may appropriately restrict forms of expression in elementary school classrooms” even when they have invited speakers into the classroom.
“The public school setting may implicate the Establishment Clause, especially where public authority undertakes or is reasonably perceived to have undertaken to give one religious belief official approval or approval over other religious beliefs,” Anthony Joseph Scirica, chief judge of the appeals court, wrote in his decision.
However, Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman issued a vigorous dissent, pointing out that the reading of a passage from Psalms to Wesley’s class was within the subject matter of the “All About Me” unit, which was to highlight things of interest and important to Wesley, and the exclusion constituted viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment because it was based solely upon its religious character.