By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
December 4, 2012
MARION — Ask elementary schoolchildren why the Pilgrims came to America and most will tell you it had something to do with their quest for religious freedom. One McDowell County first-grader may tell you that, like the pilgrims, she’s still seeking religious freedom after school administrators stripped the word “God” from her Veteran’s Day poem.
“It is beyond unfortunate that some educators and administrators have come to believe that public schools are supposed to be religion-free or God-free zones,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “The fact is, students on public school campuses enjoy constitutional protection of freedom of speech in this country, including religious speech.”
According to a the McDowell News, School Superintendent Gerri Martin said the decision to edit the poem in which the six-year-old wrote that her grandfather, a Vietnam War vet, “prayed to God for peace … prayed to God for strength,” was a result of administrators’ need to uphold the school district’s “responsibility of separation of church and state from the Establishment Clause.”
“That’s what is so absurd about this situation,” said Dr. Creech. “The student’s remarks about God are generic, just like saying the Pledge of Allegiance with its reference to ‘under God.’ I understand that they say the Pledge at this school. Certainly saying the Pledge or even what this small girl has written is in no way an establishment of religion.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom echoed Creech’s sentiments in a Nov. 30 letter to the school system asking officials to ensure that this type of censorship does not happen again.
“It is a fundamental principle of constitutional law that school officials may not suppress or exclude the personal speech of students simply because the speech is religious or contains a religious perspective,” wrote David Cortman, ADF’s senior counsel, reiterating the fact that the Supreme Court has noted a “crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect.” (Board of Educ. of the Westside Cmty. Sch. v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 249-250 (1990).
The ADF letter went further to refer school officials to specific guidelines developed by Richard Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education during the Clinton administration.
“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,” state the guidelines, accessible at www2.ed.gov/Apeeches/08-1995/religion.html.
“The censorship of this young student’s poem about her grandfathers is repugnant to the First Amendment rights of all students and sends an impermissible message of hostility towards religion,” wrote Cortman. “What’s next? A student being told that she can’t publicly recite the Gettysburg Address because President Lincoln refers to ‘the nation, under God’ or the Declaration of Independence because of references to the ‘Laws … of Nature’s God’ and the rights endowed to all people ‘by their Creator.'”
“Will students be prohibited from a report on ‘Moby Dick’ because a character offers a prayer in Chapter 9?” he asks. “The so-called ‘separation of church and state’ does not require schools to excise any reference to religion or God or prayer from the halls of the school. Rather, the First Amendment protects the right of students to discuss their faith — especially when they are discussing a historical event like this student in her poem honoring her grandfathers.”
Apparently, McDowell County School administrators feared that the child’s poem would offend one parent who had asked that there be no mention of God during the school’s Nov. 8 Veteran’s Day celebration.
“When the demand from this person was heard, the rights of another stopped,” Chris Greene, an employee of the McDowell County Schools, told the Board of Education Nov. 19. “It did so by hushing the voice of a six-year-old girl.”
“My question is this, when do the rights of one outweigh the rights of another?” he demanded. “I believe that this little girl’s rights were violated and that those who worked so hard to prepare this program should receive an apology.”
Greene’s father, Lynn Greene, a member of the school board, told the media that he agreed that banning God from the poem was unnecessary.
“My understanding on the law is a teacher cannot promote any certain religion, but when it comes to students voicing their opinion or expressing themselves in a poem we pretty much have to give some leeway,” he said. “… that was her part of the program. She was asked to write a poem about veterans and she did. My personal opinion is that her rights were violated.”
His opinion isn’t too far removed from that of the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1969 ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District.
“Students in school as well as out of school are ‘persons’ under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the state must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State,” the Court wrote. “In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved. In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.”
The High Court further stated, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Dr. Creech, who has given seminars to help both school officials and students understand their constitutional rights, admitted that the issue of religious references at school sponsored events can be a “veritable minefield.” But he warned that if incidents such as the one in Marion are not challenged, then “godless, atheistic, humanistic bullies will continue to steamroll over every beloved religious liberty and freedom of expression left to us.”
He further challenged Christians in the school system with a spiritual issue much weightier than the legal argument — the words of the Savior himself: “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones, which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone be hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)
“Shouldn’t this be the overriding fear and concern rather than fear of offending one person who doesn’t want to hear any mention of God?” Rev. Creech asked.
The ADF has asked the school system to respond by Friday with written assurance that the district will not engage in further censorship of student religious expression and that it will revise its policy to ensure that students are not discriminated against based on the religious content or viewpoint of their speech.