Magazine article Church & State

Federal Court Says No to N.J. First Grader's Proposed Bible Lesson

Magazine article Church & State

Federal Court Says No to N.J. First Grader's Proposed Bible Lesson

Article excerpt

A federal appellate court has ruled that a New Jersey elementary school student does not have a First Amendment right to defy his teacher and read a Bible story aloud to his classmates.

The conflict began in 1996 when Zachary Hood, then a first grader at Haines Elementary School in Medford, N.J., was selected to bring a story from home to read aloud during a story time. Hood wanted to read a selection adapted from the Book of Genesis from The Beginner's Bible: Timeless Children's Stories. The teacher, Grace Oliva, asked him not to read it to classmates, fearing that the children in the diverse class might perceive it as a teacher endorsement of Hood's religious beliefs. (Oliva had previously told the children she would review their books to make sure they were appropriate.)

Hood and his mother then sued the school, insisting that his First Amendment rights had been violated. The Hoods were represented first by the Rutherford Institute, and later by the Becket Fund, two Religious Right-oriented legal groups. School officials defended Oliva's action, arguing that teachers and administrators, not students, determine what goes on in the classroom.

A federal court ruled in favor of the school in 1997, and in an Oct. 22 decision, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. The three-judge panel said that the elementary school has no obligation to permit a student to read from a religious text to a captive audience of 6-year-olds.

Americans United, one of the groups that filed a legal brief in support of the school, applauded the decision as a victory for church-state separation and common sense. …

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