Censoring Jesus hurts schools, violates free speech

Sunday, October 30, 2005

I did not make this up. Truth really is stranger than fiction — especially when the story involves religion and public schools.

Flashback to the year 2000. Antonio Peck, a kindergarten student in the Baldwinsville, N.Y., school district, handed in a poster about “saving the environment” that included an image of Jesus. The principal decided that the school would hang the poster — but fold Jesus under so he couldn’t be seen. Peck’s outraged parents sued.

Stories like this belong in the next edition of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

Five years and four legal rulings later, Antonio will finally get his day in court. On Oct. 18, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to a federal district court to determine if the district violated Antonio’s free-speech rights.

Why all the fuss over a little poster by a 5-year-old child? Because Antonio’s case is about far more than a censored kindergarten assignment; it’s about the long-running fight over student religious views in public-school classrooms. Where should the line be drawn between the school’s right to control the curriculum and the student’s right to freedom of speech and religion?

Antonio’s saga began with a homework assignment to create a poster that showed some of the things the class had learned about saving the environment. The plan was to display all of the children’s posters during the environmental program at the school.

According to his mother, Antonio decided to make a poster about how only Jesus could save the world. The teacher, supported by the principal and superintendent, rejected the religious poster because it had nothing to do with what was discussed in class. That was an appropriate line to draw since Antonio had clearly not fulfilled the assignment.

Antonio agreed to do another poster. The second time around, Antonio (and his mother) got the picture. Poster No. 2 had pictures of people picking up trash and placing it in a recycling can. But not content to leave it there, Antonio included a church with a cross and a kneeling figure of Jesus, a carryover from poster No. 1.

School officials were not amused. On the grounds that the kneeling figure was irrelevant to the assignment (and believing that it wasn’t Antonio’s work), the principal told the teacher that the poster should be hung in the environmental display “with the kneeling figure folded under.”

To borrow from Dr. Phil, what was this principal thinking? Antonio had, after all, fulfilled the assignment by including topics covered in class. So why couldn’t part of his poster include his view of what it will take to save the world? If other students included nonreligious symbols not discussed in class, would they also be censored?

Both teacher and principal claimed that hiding the religious figure was necessary because it was not part of what the class had learned. They admitted, however, that other images not mentioned in class — a Sierra Club logo, for example — would be allowed as long as the student could explain how they related to “saving the environment.” But even if Antonio had explained how God was connected to the topic (he wasn’t asked), the teacher acknowledged that she “would not have accepted it because it was not taught in what children could do to help the earth.”

Apparently, Antonio’s religious views of the environment have no place in the classrooms or on the walls in the Baldwinsville public schools. A federal district court agreed with the school that the Jesus figure was beyond the scope of the poster assignment. But the 2nd Circuit panel was not convinced, ruling that the lower court had overlooked evidence that might show Antonio’s poster was censored “because it offered a religious perspective on the topic of how to save the environment.”

Now, at long last, the Pecks will get an opportunity to make their case at trial. No one denies that public schools should be able to regulate the content of the curriculum. But the Pecks will argue that the First Amendment bars public schools from discriminating against students’ religious viewpoints about that content. From what school officials have said, it appears that all kinds of secular views from kids about the environment, including views not covered in class, would have been OK to post on the wall. Just not a religious view.

If the Pecks prove viewpoint discrimination, they have a strong case. For a public school to single out student religious views for censorship is both unjust and unconstitutional.

After years of working with public schools across the nation, I’m convinced that the vast majority of teachers and administrators would have put up Antonio’s second poster without hesitation. But it only takes a few bad stories to paint all school officials with the brush of hostility to religion. The Peck case isn’t just a bad story — it’s an absurd over-reaction to student religious expression that has already harmed public education.

Unsolicited advice to the Baldwinsville school district: Before this goes to trial, settle the case. Apologize to Antonio and his family. Pay all legal fees. And put in place a policy that protects the rights of students under the First Amendment.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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