Around the States

New Jersey Bible-in-Schools Decision Narrowly Upheld

A federal appeals court has split evenly on whether a New Jersey elementary school student has 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 to a class of 5- and 6-year-olds. Hood chose 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. Instead Hood read it to Oliva privately.

On Aug. 29, all 12 judges on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals voted on C.H. v. Oliva, but split 6-6 over whether to overturn a lower court ruling that supported the decision of the teacher. As a result of the tie vote, the lower court opinion stands.

This was the third federal court ruling issued in this controversy, and each has sided with Oliva. In 1997, a federal district court ruled against the Hood family, declaring that the teacher used her discretion appropriately. A similar ruling was issued last October, when a three-judge panel of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals said that the elementary school has no obligation to permit a student to read from a religious text to a captive audience of children.

The Hood family is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative Catholic legal group based in Washington, D.C. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is expected.

Harry Potter Project Rejected By Florida Library

A public library in Florida discontinued a reading promotion based on the popular Harry Potter books when local parents raised concerns that the program was advancing witchcraft.

A branch of the Jacksonville Public Library distributed about 200 "Hogwarts' Certificates of Accomplishment" to children on July 8, coinciding with the release of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in the popular series by British author J.K. Rowling.

In the series, Potter uses spells and magic learned at the "Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry" to fight against evil. The Jacksonville library planned to distribute the certificates to other young people as they read the best-selling children's novel.

However, John Miesburg, a Jacksonville resident, learned of the library program at his church and began complaining to the library's trustees and Jacksonville's City Council. He also contacted Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal group affiliated with TV preacher Jerry Falwell.

"We don't want our children to be exposed to witchcraft," Miesburg, a father of six, told the Associated Press. "If they are going to pass out witchcraft certificates, they should promote the Bible and pass out certificates of righteousness."

Library officials insisted the project was harmless and merely intended to encourage young people to read. But based on the complaints of Miesburg and other like-minded parents, the program was discontinued.

`Moment Of Silence' Begins In Virginia Schools

Students in Virginia public schools may have noticed a little something different during homeroom this fall: a moment of silence.

During its most recent session, the Virginia legislature required every school district to schedule a 60-second moment of silence, during which students may "meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity."

Ten students from a variety of religious traditions are challenging the law with assistance from the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. But federal courts allowed the new policy to proceed while the legal challenge is under way.

"I believe this is an attempt to encourage publicly sponsored school prayer," Patrick Kelly, an Arlington County history teacher, told The Washington Post. …

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