School authorities, even teachers, face innumerable mandates these days. Among them is upholding the constitutional rights of their students. Sometimes, a given school might become overzealous in this endeavor. Usually, they have no malicious intentions, but when they involve the police, one has to wonder–about them, and the police. Todd Starnes at Fox News reports:
A public school in California ordered a 7-year-old boy to stop handing out Bible verses during lunch – and they dispatched a deputy sheriff to the child’s home to enforce the directive.
‘This is a clear, gross violation of the rights of a child,’ said Horatio Mihet, a Liberty Counsel attorney representing the first-grader who attends Desert Rose Elementary School in Palmdale. They are also representing his parents, Christina and Jaime Zavala.
Before I return to Fox, let’s review the relevant issues, issues that are much misunderstood. Prayer and religious studies have never been removed, eliminated, banned or otherwise eradicated from the public schools. Schools, my own for example, may have classes in biblical literature. I regularly discuss the role of religion and make reference to relevant scriptures and Bible stories in explaining the origins of literature and culture. To do otherwise would be professionally negligent. Students may carry and read Bibles or any other religious work as long as they do it in a way that does not interfere with classes or the orderly conduct of their schools. They can read their Bibles at lunch, discuss their faith with others, and otherwise live as they believe their faith demands.
What is prohibited is proselytization. Teachers cannot try to preach, admonish or convert students to any given faith or belief. Students cannot suddenly leap up in class and start preaching, nor can they leap on a tabletop in the lunchroom and do the same. They cannot pray in any way that would disrupt a class or prevent a teacher from teaching properly. As with all things, timing and context matter. Of course, any student may pray privately, quietly, as the Bible teaches, and who would be the wiser? One of my favorite aphorisms is: “as long as there is algebra, there will always be prayer in school.”
Let’s see if the 7-year old boy and his parents were within the Constitution.
Mrs. Zavala made it a practice of including a Bible verse and encouraging note in her son’s lunch bag. The boy would tell his friends about the note and read them aloud at the lunch table.
It wasn’t long before children asked for copies of the notes and Mrs. Zavala obliged – including a brief note to explain the daily Bible verse.
On April 18 a teacher called Mrs. Zavala and said her son would no longer be able to share the Bible verses because he was ‘not allowed to share such things while at school.
Bzzzt! As long as his “sharing” was not disruptive of normal, essential school functions, and as long as the other children weren’t objecting to the sharing, the boy was within his rights.
Liberty Counsel said the school would only allow the child to distribute the Bible verses outside the school gate – after the bell rang.
They say the teacher told Mrs. Zavala that her son ‘could no longer read or share Bible verses or stories at lunch’ – citing “separation of church and state.
Bzzzt! Keep in mind I’m relying on the Fox report for facts, but if this is accurate, the school was obviously wrong. Even so, the parents did as the school asked.
…on May 9, the school’s principal decided to implement a complete ban on the Bible verse sharing.
Liberty Counsel alleges the boy was ordered to stop handing out notes because ‘it was against school policy.’ The principal told the boy and his father to move to a public sidewalk. They complied with the principal’s demand.
Bzzzt! Again, based on the Fox account, this is excessive, unnecessary, and a probable violation of the boy’s constitutional rights.
One more digression for a bit of Constitutional Law. The seminal case is Tinker v. Des Moines, decided by the Supreme Court in February of 1969. Generally, students do not leave their constitutional rights at the door of the school building. However, they may not do things that “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” Also involved is the doctrine of in loco parentis–“in the place of the parents.” It is this doctrine that allows school authorities to act to guide and discipline children as their parents would. This doctrine has evolved over the years. Corporal punishment–spanking–for example, was once common in schools, but is now exceedingly rare.
The point is, as I already mentioned, kids can’t do anything, including religious observance, that actually, in a material, articulable, way, interferes with the educational environment. Teachers can’t simply claim that something is forbidden merely because they don’t like it.
Back to Fox, where things get serious: the school sent a Deputy Sheriff to the Zavala home to intervene.
The deputy sheriff said he had been sent by the school,’ Liberty Counsel attorney Richard Mast told me. ‘The deputy went on to tell the parents that the school was worried that someone might be offended by the Bible verses.’
Liberty Counsel said the deputy sheriff was not belligerent or threatening. The family was not served with any sort of legal documents. It appeared to be a ‘friendly’ warning.
Bzzzt! While this conduct by the deputy is not illegal, it is improper on every level. We begin with constitutionally protected activity by a 7-year old. Not only did the school have no authority to stop the boy, they surely had no business asking law enforcement to become involved.
Schools and law enforcement often, reasonably, have close relationships, and often do favors for each other. Such is the flow of life. However, the school authorities should have known better than to involve law enforcement, and the deputy absolutely should have known better than to be pulled into this matter. Contact with police officers is, for most people, inherently intimidating, even coercive. One of the first things I, in the role of a Field Training Officer, taught new police officers is the great power of the badge and uniform and how to properly use it. Regulating the religious practices of children is clearly outside the authority and lawful business of the police, unless the children are creating a disturbance that would potentially rise to the level of an arrest, which is apparently not the case here.
It was outrageous and should shock the conscious of every freedom-loving American,’ Mihet told me. ‘Apparently all the real criminals have been dealt with in Palmdale – and now they’re going after kids who share Bible verses during lunch time.
The LA County SO did not return calls, which is unsurprising. The school district provided standard bureaucratic tap dancing:
Raul Maldonado, the superintendent of Palmdale School District, told me they are reviewing the matter and consulting with legal counsel.
‘I can confirm the District’s understanding that a member of the Sheriff’s department visited the home,’ he said. ‘However, the District is not yet clear as to the specific nature of that engagement.
Sound believable, gentle readers?
He did not respond to questions about who ordered the deputy sheriff to visit the child’s home or why the visit was necessary – especially since the family complied with the school’s directives.
‘The District remains committed to ensuring an environment where all students, regardless of religious affiliation or belief, are free to learn and reach their full potential,’ Maldonado said.
Isn’t that nice, educratic jargon? It seems to say something meaningful, yet says nothing at all.
I would expect something like this to happen in Communist Romania – where I went to elementary school – but cops don’t bully 7-year-olds who want to talk about Jesus in the Land of the Free,’ Mihet said.
Students do not check their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door, he said.’ [skip]
Liberty Counsel is demanding the school stop its policy of suppressing and censoring student religious speech. If they fail to comply, the school could face a federal lawsuit.’
And for good measure – we can only hope that Liberty Counsel will use a deputy sheriff to hand deliver the lawsuit to the school’s principal.
Cute, but unlikely.
As I’ve already noted, I cannot confirm all of the facts alleged by Fox and the Liberty Counsel in this case. However, this sort of behavior by school authorities, particularly in blue states, is not uncommon. In many cases, they inadvertently infringe on the rights of students out of an honest desire to adhere to the letter of the law. Unfortunately, they are often unaware of the letter and application of the law. Sometimes, they act based on progressive political ideology, which tends to be suspicious of, even abusive toward, Christianity. In such cases, the letter and spirit of the law don’t matter–to them.
I do not know which motivation is at work here. However, the main actor is the school, not the deputy who apparently needs a bit more specific training on the Constitution and the limitations of his authority.
I’ll continue to follow the case and update if there is anything interesting to report.