On the issue of religious freedom and freedom of speech, where do we allow the United States government and the public school system to draw the lines? This is precisely the question that parents at one Pennsylvania elementary school are asking after a student was reprimanded for exercising his religious freedom. Park Lakes Elementary School punished a fifth-grade student named Giovanni for reading the Bible.
Giovanni’s instructor did not approve of the reading of religious material, but he was doing so silently during free reading time. Instead of respecting the student’s choice of reading material, the teacher called his parents to rant about the supposed material in opposition to “public school curriculum.” However, since the whole purpose of a free reading time is for a student to choose their own material, Giovanni’s Bible did not interfere with public school curriculum or with the class proceedings whatsoever. Such a punishment sets a dangerous precedent for the constitutional rights of America’s schoolchildren. If they must sacrifice their right to free speech and religious liberty in the classroom, what’s next?
At first, Park Lakes didn’t seem to be interested in preserving its students’ constitutional rights. Even after being contacted by the Liberty Institute, the principal of the school issued a defiant response to Giovanni’s parents, “Your child is permitted to read the Bible before school, after school and during lunch, in accordance to the law.”
Fortunately, the national attention brought to this particular case created the pressure necessary for the school to “clarify” their position:
Broward County Public Schools respects and upholds the rights of students to bring personal religious materials to school, including the Bible, and to read these items before school, after school or during any ‘free reading’ time during the school day. This information has been communicated to the parents of the student involved in this situation.
Despite the Supreme Court making it clear that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the fact that the constitutional conflict at Park Lakes would even arise is quite troubling. Every student is constitutionally guaranteed the right to exercise their religious beliefs in a public school, although a school cannot mandate prayer or endorse an official religion. The question is, how long will the people of United States stand to tolerate our government’s overreaching behavior in every aspect of our lives?
When the first settlers of this nation took the risk of beginning a new life here in North America, many of them did so to escape religious oppression and persecution brought on by King James of England against the Puritans. Giovanni certainly did not suffer the wrath of King James in his classroom. However, the fact that religious persecution still exists hundreds of years since the arrival of the Puritans in America and the establishment of religious freedom in the United States, our forefathers would be disappointed to witness the lack of progress we have made. The ignorance of the lessons they taught us and foundations they laid down for us just very well may be the issue at hand.
Revolutionary Era writer and political activist Thomas Paine once wrote in his collection The American Crisis that, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” Students, parents, and citizens must cannot fatigue in the fight to protect not just religious freedoms, but all of our freedoms.