Monday, August 24, 2009

Student's Bible in School Tossed in Trash

In the year 2000, just as we entered a new millennium, parents of students in Willis, Texas, filed a federal lawsuit against the school. It says that a middle-school teacher saw two students carrying Bibles and pulled them from class. The teacher threatened to call the child welfare services, presumably because parents would let their children commit this horrible infraction. One of the students involved called her mother and said, "Mama, they took our Bibles and called them garbage and threw them in the garbage and then threatened to call Child Protective Services." The teacher is accused of saying, "We don't tolerate this garbage in school."

This is one of the worse cases of this type I have heard about. I saw friends go through a similar, but much more subtle incident in school. These things happen because of a profound misunderstanding of the meaning of the First Amendment, and a substitution of that document's words with "separation of church and state." That latter phrase can mean almost anything, which is one reason I feel it is so dangerous. Such a phrase could be (and has been) used to prevent a Bible showing its face in the hands of a public school student. (Many students have been prohibited from reading a Bible during their free time at school.)

This is an older example, but such misunderstandings continue today. Keeping in mind that the same Founders who wrote and ratified the First Amendment also authorized a printing of 20,000 Bibles for use in the public schools, it's hard to imagine how we got so completely turned around.

Read more at the Houston Chronicle:

Lawsuit claims students not allowed to carry Bibles

UPDATE: Based on information provided by "Lex" in the comments section of this post, it appears the parents requested that the lawsuit be dropped. They said they are trying to work on a policy on religious freedom with the school. The school maintains that the charges were false. Opinion: I hope charges were not made falsely (although that issue is not settled) because such an action does no one good. In my own experience, there is an "attitude" problem among some staff at some schools. You will find several other stories on this blog that are not in dispute. The experience of my friends' child, and experiences with my own child, show that at the very least our regional system had some teachers that showed "attitude" in their actions, which influenced or intimidated the kids. I don't believe such an attitude is always a reflection of school policy, but it may be a reflection in some circles of a certain worshipful attitude about "separation of church and state" in that phrase's most limiting sense.


LexAequitas said...

It would indeed be quite shocking, if it had actually happened.

The suit was dropped back in 2000after the School District did an investigation and found it never happened.

History Matters said...

Do you have source for that info? I'd like to know more, and I certainly want to keep the posts accurate, but I can't find a source showing the lawsuit was bogus.

LexAequitas said...

Try I had googled a couple of the names in the article, so that's only a reference that the case was dropped 13 days after being filed. There are other references on the internet to denials by the school board.

History Matters said...

Thanks for the extra info, LexAequitas. I have amended the post. I'll keep an eye out for more actions in this particular case/event.

LexAequitas said...

Well, keep in mind that as this is nearly a decade ago, there are unlikely to be any additional developments in this particular case. I agree with you that teachers sometimes overstep their bounds in this area, on both sides of the overall issue.

Your own overall argument is dangerous to your position, though. You would prefer teachers not to have an "attitude", but at the same time don't want the first amendment applied to the states. If the first amendment doesn't apply, however, then the teachers would have been completely free to confiscate and denigrate the Bible during class (disposing of legal property, however, is a property violation).

History Matters said...


First, there is a chicken/egg factor at work. I believe most of the school-related actions I report in the blog are due to teachers thinking that the prohibitions in the 1st Amendment apply to public schools, even though originally they were targeted at Congress. Then if we apply the prohibition to the states, I would still argue that there is no infraction here.

Second is the misunderstanding factor. The metaphor "separation of church and state" is applied to a public school, even to a student's "private" time within the school day. It is the application of the "separation" phrase, without complete understanding of the 1st Amendment that is a lot of the trouble.

I have posted an occasional response on other venues about issues such as using religious songs as part of a public school choir program. My main point (assuming I'm writing clearly that day) is that one should not use legalese about "separation" because that's not a valid argument. School administrators and school boards should make such decisions based on appropriate educational standards and community needs/sensitivities. I don't think there is any way that the founders intended the Federal gov't (certainly not the courts) to decide such issues. It's a local decision, and in either a federal policy or a local decision, not everyone is going to be happy. But state/local/personal control was pretty sacred to the founders.

A teacher doing what was alleged in the example here would be inappropriate for a variety of reasons, but chiefly because it demeans a student's personal religious beliefs. If the actions are as reported, it was an insensitive way to handle the situation.

My argument about why the First Amendment should not be applied entirely to the states is the wording of the 14th Amendment. Keeping in mind that I'm not a legal scholar, here is the passage of #14 that I think is the cause of trying to apply the Establishment Clause to the states:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

But the Establishment Clause is a prohibition on making a law establishing a religion. It seems that 14 is trying to protect individual rights, which then might carry the Free Exercise down to the state level. Of course a state law establishing a religion could be an infringement on individual rights as well.

Even so, it's a non-direct argument to say that a choir singing a religious song is the same as a state having a law that says you must worship in that religion. And certainly the Free Exercise clause would protect a student's use of a Bible during free time, or choosing a book of the Bible for a book report.

Overall, though, if we get to the point of making all these arguments, I fear the main point of our government's establishment is lost. The framers intended to create limited Federal government. What they did not specifically assign to the Feds they left to states and citizens. If we are making Constitutional arguments about a book a child carries around or a song on a choral program, we are waaaaaay off base. IMHO