Federal appeals court to reconsider decision in Bible-reading case

Thursday, April 22, 1999

An elementary school student in New Jersey will get another chance to persuade a federal appeals court that his First Amendment rights were violated by a public school teacher who barred him from reading a Bible story in class.

A three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to reconsider its earlier ruling rejecting Zachary Hood's claims against his teacher and the Medford school district.

In 1997, U.S. District Judge Joseph Rodriguez ruled that Zachary's free-speech and religious-liberty rights were not violated when Grace Oliva, then his first-grade teacher at a Medford school, told him not to read the class the story “A Big Family,” an adaptation of an Old Testament passage. Rodriguez wrote that Oliva's actions were justified and constitutionally permissible.

Zachary “was not allowed to read the book to his classmates during class time because it was the Bible, a religious book that constitutes the very foundation for a number of, but obviously not all, religions,” Rodriguez wrote. “It is irrelevant that the story had no overt religious theme; the speech was the book itself. Even if every single student, teacher and administrator in [Zachary's] public school were strong adherents to Christianity, the Medford defendants' actions would still be permissible.”

Represented by the Becket Fund, a Washington, D.C., based religious-liberty group, Zachary asked a panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Rodriguez's ruling. The Becket Fund has maintained that the Medford school district's actions toward Zachary subvert his free-speech rights. Moreover, lawyers for the Becket Fund argued that Medford school officials were hostile toward religion in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Last year without holding oral hearings, the 3rd Circuit panel issued a three-paragraph opinion supporting Rodriguez's ruling. “We must give substantial deference to public school [authorities'] decisions regarding what subjects are appropriate for elementary school classroom discussion,” the panel wrote.

The Becket Fund then submitted a brief asking either for a rehearing by the panel or the entire 3rd Circuit. Earlier this week, the panel issued an order granting a rehearing and setting oral argument for June 2.

Eric Treene, the Becket Fund's litigation coordinator, said that the rehearing would provide his group a chance to show that Meford school officials unnecessarily and unconstitutionally muzzled Zachary.

“We think that Zachary's free speech and religious liberties were violated and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to vindicate those rights,” Treene said. “By creating a forum for children to bring in their favorite stories and (then) denying Zachary the chance to read his story simply because it was based on a biblical story, the school engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

Treene also said that by censoring Zachary's story, as well as removing a picture he drew professing a love of Jesus from a school bulletin board, the school had violated the establishment clause. “The school sent the message that Zachary's type of religious speech was second-class speech, and public schools are barred from sending such a message by the establishment clause.”