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Education Reporter

Schools Censor Religious Artwork, Bibles,
and Bowing One's Head during Prayer
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Can an art teacher make a rule against religious themes in students' artwork? Does a school force religion on students by allowing an outside group to distribute Bibles to students who want them? Would a school district be "endorsing" religion if it allowed a coach to bow his head while students pray before a game? Schools, students and the courts have recently taken up these questions.

School censors religious artwork

A senior at Tomah High School in Wisconsin received a zero on an art project because he added a cross and the words "John 3:16 A sign of love" to his landscape drawing. Conversations with the art teacher and the assistant principal made it clear that both misunderstood the nature of students' rights to religious expression. The student has filed a federal lawsuit against his teacher and school.

When the student, identified in the lawsuit by the initials "A.P.," turned in his project, teacher Julie Millin asked him to remove the cross and Scripture reference because other students were making comments about them. She then showed him a class policy prohibiting violence, blood, sexual connotations or religious elements in students' artwork. Millin claimed that students signed away their constitutional rights when they signed this policy at the beginning of the semester.

The school's assistant principal, Cale Jackson, told A.P. that his drawing infringed on other students' rights. A.P.'s lawsuit argues that his rights, not those of other students, were abridged by the series of events concerning his drawing. "Students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate," the lawsuit says. "No compelling state interest exists to justify the censorship of A.P.'s religious expression." (Fox News, 4-1-08) Judge prohibits Bible distribution

A year ago, Gideons International distributed Bibles to 5th-grade students at Loranger Middle School in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana. Students were allowed either to leave class to pick up a Bible from the Gideons or to stay in the classroom if they didn't want one. The principal told 5th-grade teachers to emphasize to students that they did not have to take a Bible. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the school board on behalf of one 5th-grade student and her father who objected to the distribution of Bibles.

The student, who is Roman Catholic, did not think her parents would want her to accept a Bible because the Roman Catholic Bible and the Bible the Gideons distribute contain a slightly different canon of books. She states that she accepted a Bible anyway because she was afraid that otherwise her classmates would pick on her.

"A child shouldn't have to choose between her family's beliefs and the wishes of school administrators," said Marjorie Esman, the executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier agreed with the ACLU and granted its request for summary judgment on the case. "Distribution of Bibles is a religious activity without a secular purpose," Barbier opined, saying also that the distribution was "ultimately coercive." The school board argues that school officials "merely allowed an organization onto a school campus for the purpose of making literature available to students."

The ACLU has sued the Tangipahoa Parish School Board seven times, including this suit and two that are still pending. The board will appeal Barbier's decision in this case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. (www.2theadvocate.com, 4-23-08)

Coach may not bow his head

A federal appeals court upheld a New Jersey school district's policy prohibiting staff members from participating in student prayers, even by bowing their heads respectfully or "taking a knee." Football coach Marcus Borden sued the district in 2005 over the policy. A lower court ruled in Borden's favor, and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals now reverses that ruling.

Borden routinely led his team in prayer before the school district received complaints and asked him to stop. Now he seeks only the right to bow his head or kneel during prayers initiated and led by students. In the decision he wrote for the court, Judge D. Michael Fisher cited Borden's history of leading prayer. "A reasonable observer would conclude that (Borden) is continuing to endorse religion when he bows his head during the pre-meal grace and takes a knee with his team in the locker room while they pray," he wrote.

Although the court ruled that the school district policy was constitutional, each judge wrote a separate opinion on exactly what schools should require coaches in Borden's situation to do. Judge Theodore McKee agreed with Judge Fisher that Borden should not participate in student-led prayer even by bowing his head or kneeling. McKee, however, wrote that even a coach with no history of leading prayer should not be allowed to bow his head. The third judge, Maryann Trump Barry, wrote that "surely (a coach in Borden's position) would not be required to keep his head erect or turn his back or stand and walk away. Any such requirement would evidence a hostility to religion that no one would intend."

Borden's lawyer, Ronald J. Riccio, pointed out that the appeal court's decision is very confusing, since it does not apply to all coaches. "One of the things that is clear from the Third Circuit opinion is that public school coaches who do not have a history of praying with their players can bow their head and take a knee. So it creates a bit of an ambiguity," he said. Borden and Riccio plan to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. (New York Times, 4-16-08)

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