Zachary’s case proves you can win despite losing

Sunday, June 24, 2001

Getting the Supreme Court to hear your case isn't everything. Sometimes it's more important to win in the court of public opinion.

Consider the case of Zachary Hood, the child barred by his teacher from reading a story from The Beginner's Bible to his first-grade classmates (even though students were told that they could read their favorite story to the entire class).

After attempts by Zachary's mother to work things out with the teacher and principal failed, the Hood family filed suit.

A federal judge sided with the school, ruling that the teacher had the authority to decide whether or not Zachary could read his story. Then last August an appeals court split 6-6 on the issue, allowing the lower court decision to stand.

This week — five years after the incident occurred — the Supreme Court declined to hear the Hood family's appeal.

But Zachary may ultimately win by losing. News coverage of the case has provoked widespread disbelief and outrage at the idea that students can read any story they choose to the class — as long as it doesn't come from the Bible.

Everywhere I raise the issue, the vast majority of people think that Zachary should have been allowed to read the story.

Just last week, I presented the case to a seminar attended by Virginia teachers, parents, administrators and religious leaders. Their verdict was unanimous: Students — even very young students — have constitutional rights. And teachers can only trump those rights if they have good educational reasons for doing so.

I get the same result wherever I ask the question — from California to Texas to New York. People know that a public-school classroom is not a public forum where students can say or read aloud whatever they choose. But at the same time, people strongly believe that as long as students are meeting the stated requirements of an assignment, teachers shouldn't be able to censor the student's speech simply because it has religious content.

Of course, teachers of young children need to control what goes on in their classrooms. But Zachary's story about Jacob and Esau wasn't violent or obscene. It wasn't too complex or too long for first-graders. It didn't even mention God.

The one and only reason given for disallowing the story was the fact that it came from the Bible. The teacher feared that if Zachary read the story, other students might feel that the school was imposing religion.

But as one Virginia teacher argued last week, a simple disclaimer by the teacher — “this is Zachary's favorite story” — should have been sufficient to allay any concerns about “school endorsement” of religion.

The more I talk about this case with educators, the more I'm convinced that very few teachers and administrators would have barred Zachary from reading his favorite story.

Nevertheless, there's still the danger that some teachers will misread the result in this case to mean that anything with religious content should be kept out of the classroom.

But that's not what the courts are saying. The message of this case is simply this: Elementary teachers have wide latitude to decide what is and isn't “appropriate” to be read in their classrooms.

Nothing in Zachary's case (or in any other case) prohibits teachers from allowing kids to select and read stories with religious content. On the contrary, students may be allowed to express their beliefs about religion in their oral and written assignments as long as they meet the academic requirements set forth by the teacher.

Zachary's case has been a long battle. But even though the Supreme Court won't hear the appeal, Zachary's mother Carol tells me that she has “no regrets.” Her goal is to “open up understanding about the importance of protecting religious expression by children.”

From my soundings of educators and parents around the country, I would say that the Hood family and their lawyers at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty are reaching that goal.

The Supreme Court may not hear Zachary's case, but the American people will.

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