Federal appeals court hears arguments in Bible-story case

Friday, June 4, 1999

A federal appeals court panel heard arguments this week in a case regarding a public school student who was barred from reading a Bible story before an elementary school class in New Jersey.

The case involving the proper place for the Bible and biblical material in a public school classroom began several years ago.

In 1996, Zachary Hood, then a first-grader at a school in Medford, N.J., attempted to read the story “A Big Family,” an adaptation of a passage from the Old Testament, to his class. Zachary's teacher, Grace Oliva, had told students that as a reward for reaching a certain proficiency in reading, they could read aloud a story of their own choosing. Oliva told Zachary he could only read the story to her in private because of its religious origin, even though it did not mention God or miracles.

Zachary's parents then sued the school district in federal court, arguing their son's free speech and religious-liberty rights had been violated. In 1997, U.S. District Judge Joseph Rodriguez ruled against Zachary, saying that his teacher had legitimate educational concerns in barring the story from being read. Rodriguez said that had the story been read, the first-graders could have seen the presentation as an endorsement of the Bible.

Represented by the Becket Fund, a Washington, D.C., based religious-liberty group, Zachary's parents asked the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Rodriquez's ruling. Last year, a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit, without oral hearings, issued a three-paragraph opinion upholding the ruling. This April, however, that same three-judge panel withdrew its opinion and announced it would conduct hearings and reconsider the ruling.

On June 2, at a 30-minute hearing before the federal appeals court panel, attorneys for the Becket Fund and Medford School district argued over the constitutionality of the actions of Zachary's first-grade teacher.

Eric Treene, the Becket Fund's litigation director, told the judges that the teacher opened up a limited public forum by inviting students to bring their choice of stories to class and then barred Zachary from reading his simply because of the story's religious origin.

“We argued before the court that Zachary, as reward for his reading ability, was asked to share with the class his favorite story,” Treene said. “He did not try to bring in a prayer or some religious speech, he brought in a story of two brothers' reconciliation. If these two brothers had been princes in a fable, it would not have been a problem — but because the two brothers story originated from the Bible, it was excluded.”

Michael P. Madden, an attorney for the Medford school officials, argued before the appellate panel that first-graders are impressionable and that the teacher's actions were appropriate, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In Hazelwood, the high court ruled that public school officials have much greater control over student speech and that if legitimate educational concerns exist that certain student expression can be suppressed.

“Our argument was based on Supreme Court precedent — especially Hazelwood — and we did not see any reason why the 3rd Circuit should now reverse the Rodriguez ruling, which was a well-reasoned opinion,” Madden said. Zachary's attorney, Madden contended, “tried to say that because the teacher asked Zachary to bring in his favorite story … the teacher somehow changed the forum and had less control. This was a first- grade-class that was open only to the teacher and those first-grade students and did not turn into some kind of public forum.”

In his brief before the 3rd Circuit panel, Madden said that “Oliva's decision to not allow the minor plaintiff to read 'The Beginners Bible' to a room of first graders, but to permit a reading of the selected story to herself alone, could be described as a commendable effort in walking the line between the mandates of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.”

Madden continued that “Oliva's concerns for the impression a reading of 'The Beginners Bible' would leave on her class of first graders, were entirely reasonable. 'The Beginners Bible,' objectively, is a book whose purpose is to stir children's interest in the Christian faith. Its stories are presented in an easy to read fashion, typical of children's books, along with illustrations to accompany these stories.”

The appeals court judges, Madden said, raised concerns about the age of the children and their impressionability and noted that one judge asked whether the teacher did not have a heightened duty to control the reading material in class because they were first-graders.

Treene said that the children were impressionable, but that the wrong impression was given.

“The impression sent to Zachary and his classmates, who saw him go to front of the class only to have his story rejected, was that because he chose a story based on the Bible that he was an outsider,” Treene said. “The impression is that his favorite story is something he should keep to himself and be ashamed of.”

Charles Haynes, a religious-liberty scholar at The Freedom Forum and co-author of Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum, dismissed arguments by the Medford school officials that the teacher's actions toward Zachary were justified.

“The teacher in this case had no legitimate educational grounds for prohibiting Zachary from reading a story from the Beginner's Bible,” Haynes said. “All the teacher had to do was tell the class that this story was from Zachary's religion. When students are assigned to select their favorite story to read aloud, they should be free to do so unless the story is obscene, too violent, or otherwise inappropriate for young children. The simple fact that the story comes from the Bible is not a sufficient pedagogical reason for excluding it from the classroom. To say otherwise sends a message of hostility to religion that is prohibited by the First Amendment.”