Sympathy for the Principal


church and state.JPGTensions between constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and constitutional prohibitions on religious establishment are great fun to debate, unless you're a public school administrator apt to be sued if you do or sued if you don't allow expressions of religious belief in school.  Consider two recent federal cases:  in Washington state, District Superintendent Carol Whitehead was sued for barring a student group from playing Ave Maria at a 2006 high school graduation ceremony; the previous year, the school had come under fire for a graduation performance by the choir that included references to God, heaven, and angels.  In Pennsylvania, elementary school principle Thomas Cook was sued, (along with the school district) for prohibiting the mother of a kindergarten student from reading Bible passages to her son's class.  Cook advised her that a Bible reading would violate "the law ... of separation of church and state... the Bible is holy scripture ... reading that to kindergarten students is promoting religion."

Federal appellate courts upheld both decisions barring religious speech (in Busch v Marple Newtown School District, and Nurre v Whitehead) and the Rutherford Institute is seeking Supreme Court review of both cases, neither of which is easy to resolve.  Personally I could argue either side of either case, but if pressed, I'd probably rule against the school in the Busch case, (involving the thwarted Bible reading) while upholding school policy allowing only secular songs at graduation.    
The strict separationist view adopted, not surprisingly, by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, (an organization I support,) characterizes "hymns (as) appropriate for church, but not public school graduations." (I tend to agree.)  AU also argues that the Culbertson Elementary School would indeed "have violated the Establishment Clause," as the principal feared, if it allowed a parent to "read the Bible to a kindergarten class."  I tend to disagree, given the particular circumstances of this case.

Kindergartner Wesley Busch was participating in a class program called "All About Me."  (Isn't it always, especially for children?)  As the Court observed, this was a "socialization" exercise; "students would 'identify individual interests and learn about others' and would 'identify sources of conflict with others and ways that conflicts can be resolved.' "  Parents were invited to participate, and Wesley's mother, Donna Kay Busch, claimed that her son chose the Bible as his favorite book, asking her to read it to his class; (providing a "source of conflict" the school probably didn't anticipate.)  Busch is a self-identified evangelical Christian and, the Court noted, with a straight face,  "Wesley shares his mother's religious belief."

I doubt there are many five year olds who don't share their parent's religious beliefs; (five is a bit young for intellectual or spiritual rebellion.) I'm skeptical too that Wesley named the Bible as his favorite book without at least a little prompting from mom. (His babysitter testified that Brown Bear, Brown Bear was his favorite.) Wesley could not read or write and probably would not even have understood the Bible passages his mother proposed to read, a concurrence in Busch observed.  But, it would hardly be helpful or appropriate to interrogate a five year old about his beliefs and preferences, and the majority took his mother's assertions about them at face value.  So, assuming that Wesley is a precocious tyke committed to evangelical Christianity, why shouldn't his mother read passages from his favorite holy book in an exercise designed to tell the class "all about" Wesley?  

Because "[p]arents of public school kindergarten students may reasonably expect their children will not become captive audiences to an adult's reading of religious texts," the Court explained.  It was unpersuaded that a parent invited to speak to a class should not be subject to limits on religious speech necessarily imposed on teachers. "[P]arents, much like teachers, are typically held in high regard and viewed as authoritative by young children.  By inviting participation in curricular activities, educators do not cede control over the message and content of the subject matter presented in the classroom."

This concern about maintaining official school control of classroom activities is central to  Busch: Wesley's classmates would probably not have been converted to Christianity or otherwise harmed had his mother read a few psalms to them; but school administrators would have suffered harmed had she successfully challenged their control over classroom activities.  This solicitude for school officials should give pause to civil libertarians who applaud the prohibition of a parental, classroom bible reading.  Deferring to school authorities in recent cases, (like Morse v Frederick and Doninger v Neihoff) federal courts have sharply eroded the individual rights of students, especially in free speech controversies.  Maybe, by barring classroom proselytizing, maintaining separation of church and state, the Busch decision vindicated First Amendment freedoms; and maybe it undermined them, by vindicating the authority of administrators.

Photo Credit: Flickr User Caveman 92223--On the Road Again!

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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