Religious-liberty group seeks rehearing in Bible-reading case
A New Jersey public school student is not giving up on his contention that he has a fundamental right to read a Bible story to his classmates and to place a Christian poster in a school hallway.
Since late 1997, Zachary Hood and a national religious-liberty group have maintained that public school officials in Medford, N.J., violated his free-speech and religious liberties when he was a kindergartner and a first-grader.
Officials removed Zachary’s kindergarten Thanksgiving poster from a hallway because it included his thanks to Jesus. Later as a first-grader, Zachary was barred by his teacher from reading the story “A Big Family,” an adaptation of an Old Testament passage from The Beginner’s Bible. Zachary’s teacher, Grace Oliva, refused to let him read the story to his classmates because of its religious nature, telling his mother it might influence other students.
Zachary challenged the school’s actions in federal court as a violation of his constitutional rights. In December 1997, a federal judge ruled in favor of the school officials, saying that they were acting within the Constitution’s framework. Last month, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the federal court ruling. In a 16-page opinion, the court wrote that “educators may impose non-viewpoint neutral restrictions on the content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as those restrictions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
Late last week, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a petition with the 3rd Circuit on behalf of Zachary asking the three-judge panel to rehear the case or for the full circuit to review it.
According to the Becket Fund’s 17-page petition, the three-judge panel “made a radical departure from the precedents of this Court and United States Supreme Court that merits a rehearing.”
The Becket Fund argues that in previous rulings the 3rd Circuit has interpreted federal court precedent to allow for restrictions on student speech in school-sponsored activities only where such restrictions are “viewpoint-neutral.” The Becket Fund, however, says that the 3rd Circuit now says “that educators may impose non-viewpoint neutral restrictions on the content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as those restrictions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
Furthermore, the Becket Fund maintains that school officials did not have a “compelling interest” in justifying its “viewpoint discrimination” against Zachary’s religious expression.
“The only reasons set forth in the complaint that [Oliva] offered for barring the story was that she told Zachary it was barred ‘because of its religious content,’ and told Zachary’s mother that he ‘could not read ‘the Bible’ in class ‘because it might influence other students,’” the Becket Fund argues.