Split decision over Bible story begs high court involvement

Sunday, September 17, 2000

Did a first-grade teacher violate Zachary Hood's rights when she
barred him from reading a story from the Beginner's

After a four-year legal battle, we still don't have a final answer.
Earlier this month the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals split 6-6 on the question,
leaving in place a lower court ruling in favor of the teacher. Zachary's family
will now take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court with the help of the Becket
Fund for Religious Liberty of Washington, D.C.

School officials in this New Jersey public school will continue to
argue that the teacher had the right to exclude Zachary's story on the grounds
that it came from the Bible. The teacher's concern? If a student should read a
Bible story to the class, other students might think that the school was
endorsing religion.

But the Hood family will continue to insist that Zachary was only
fulfilling the teacher's assignment. When the children were told that they
could bring a favorite story from home to read aloud to the class, here's what
Zachary selected:

“Jacob traveled far away to his uncle's house. He worked for his
uncle, taking care of sheep. While he was there, Jacob got married. He had
twelve sons. Jacob's big family lived on his uncle's land for many years. But
Jacob wanted to go back home. One day, Jacob packed up all his animals and his
family and everything he had. They traveled all the way back to where Esau
lived. Now Jacob was afraid that Esau might still be angry at him. So he sent
presents to Esau. He sent servants who said, 'Please don't be angry anymore.'
But Esau wasn't angry. He ran to Jacob. He hugged and kissed him. He was happy
to see his brother again.”

What do you think? Should teachers be able to exclude stories like
this one simply because they come from a religious source?

Both sides in this case invoke the First Amendment to support their
opposing positions. The teacher argues that the establishment clause could be
violated if the school is perceived as promoting religion. The family responds
that censoring Zachary's story denies his free exercise of religion and his
free-speech rights.

With all due respect to the teacher (and teachers surely deserve our
support and respect), the establishment clause doesn't require keeping
religious expression or stories out of public-school classrooms. It requires
that teachers neither inculcate nor inhibit religion.

It's hard for me to understand how allowing Zachary to read the story
of Jacob and Esau would “inculcate” religion. On the contrary, keeping him from
reading the story strikes me as “inhibiting” religious expression protected by
the First Amendment.

That's why this small incident has large implications. If the lower
court decision supporting the teacher is allowed to stand, it could have a
chilling effect on student religious expression in public schools everywhere.

Right now, schools are being advised by the U.S. Department of
Education that “students may express their beliefs about religion in the form
of homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free of
discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.”

What happens to these guidelines if Zachary's family loses their
appeal? More importantly, what happens to the religious-liberty rights of
students in public schools?

Let's hope that the Supreme Court will take this case. And then let's
hope that there are at least five justices who will vote to uphold fairness and
freedom under the First Amendment.

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