Poetry and emotion: when a 6-year-old is censored

Friday, November 30, 2012

In a case that made headlines across the country, a 6-year-old first grader in Marion, N.C., was told to remove a reference to God before she could read a poem honoring the military service of her two grandfathers.

That has outrage written all over it. Even a little girl has the First Amendment right to express her faith. Her remarks were primarily intended to honor the people in her family who had served in Vietnam. The school could have — and probably should have — allowed the girl to read the tribute exactly as written.

But things didn’t go that smoothly. For reasons that have never been clarified, someone who was aware of the little girl’s poem objected, spurring the school superintendent, the principal and the assistant principal at West Marion Elementary School to discuss whether the poem might run afoul of the Constitutional prohibition against government endorsing a faith.

“We jointly decided that we must err on the side of caution to prevent from crossing the line on the Establishment Clause of the Constitution,”  West Marion’s Principal Desarae Kirkpatrick told The McDowell News in North Carolina. “As a principal of a public school, I must put aside my personal religious beliefs and follow the law, which upholds that we have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but that we, as public schools, cannot endorse one single religion over another.”

Was the school’s decision to err on the side of caution and tell the little girl that she could not refer to God a violation of her First Amendment rights? The law is murky, but probably not. Though a little girl’s faith and speech are protected, things get more complicated when the school administration knows ahead of time that the youngster is going to make a religious reference at an assembly that all students are required to attend. That’s what made these school administrators nervous.

In deciding whether a school has endorsed religion, courts will look at a variety of factors including the age of the students involved, whether students were required to attend the program and how involved the school was in presenting the message. The older and more independent the students, the less likely it is that a court would find that a school has stepped over an establishment line.

Clearly the school was trying to avoid being sued, but its best bet was to let the young lady speak her mind. The likelihood of being successfully sued in this gray area was minimal; the likelihood of being decried as hostile to God and freedom of religion was pretty much guaranteed. Court decisions and common sense both need to come into play.

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