Revisiting some issues of interest

Sunday, February 27, 2000

Letters in my mailbag frequently begin with the phrase “whatever happened to ….” It's big news when conflicts erupt and lawsuits are filed. But where do the stories go from there?

Let's revisit a number of issues recently discussed in this space. New developments this month give us the next chapter, if not the end of the story.

Remember the Ohio school district that was sued last August for closing schools on the Jewish High Holy Days? District officials argued that the high rate of absenteeism on those days justified canceling classes.

On Feb. 16, the school board ended the practice, saying that the 15% absenteeism rate wasn't high enough to justify shutting schools on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That decision will make the local ACLU's lawsuit disappear.

Is this a good outcome? Not in my opinion. The fact that the number of absentees on those days was more than three times the normal rate should be a sufficient secular reason to call off classes. I'm disappointed that the district backed down.

February 16 was also the day when the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case involving Zachary Hood, the New Jersey boy barred from reading a Bible story to his first-grade class. Lawyers for the family argued that since Zachary had fulfilled the assignment to bring his favorite story to share with the class, he should have been allowed to read it. The school district insisted that the teacher should have the discretion to decide what is read aloud in the classroom.

It's difficult to predict the result. From all reports, the judges on the bench directed tough comments to both sides.

This is a sad case that pits two important principles against each other. Of course teachers need to control what goes on in the classroom. But students still have constitutional rights. In this case, the teacher's only reason for not allowing the story was the fact that it came from the Bible. (Actually it was from the Beginner's Bible and didn't mention God.) Thus far, the courts have sided with the teacher.

I'm hoping that Zachary's family will win their appeal. It strikes me as unconstitutional for a teacher to exclude a story simply because it's from the Bible.

We'll have the decision soon. I'll keep you posted.

Last December, a number of readers expressed outrage when the Federal Communications Commission issued guidelines that attempted to define when religious programming on noncommercial television stations is educational and when it is not. According to that ruling, programs that “proselytize” aren't educational.

But such a line is difficult to draw. In this instance, the FCC counted Bible studies, but not worship services, as educational — a distinction that's hard to comprehend.

After a month of heavy criticism from political leaders and religious groups, the FCC withdrew the guidelines in late January. I consider that good news for religious liberty. Any attempt by the federal government to restrict religious speech — or to entangle the government in the business of determining what is or isn't “proselytizing” — raises serious First Amendment issues.

The most heartening new development is the enthusiastic reaction to the packet of religious-liberty guidelines announced by President Clinton in December and mailed this month by the Department of Education to every public school. Hundreds of requests for additional copies are pouring in from all over the nation.

At long last, public schools have clear guidance on the religious-liberty rights of students, on teaching about religion in the curriculum, and on cooperative arrangements between religious communities and public schools.