Separation of Church and State and Public Schools: Police Dispatched to Stop First Grader from Reading Bible Verses During School Lunch

dsc00009Officials at a public elementary school in Palmdale, California, dispatched a deputy sheriff after a first grader shared Bible verses with his friends at lunch.

Like many other loving mothers, Christina Zavala would send her seven-year-old son, Caleb, notes in his school lunch bag that included Bible stories. At the urging of his friends, Caleb soon began sharing the stories with them at lunch.

One of Caleb’s classmates excitedly shared one of the stories with their teacher, who then “informed Christina that [Caleb] could no longer read or share Bible verses or stories at lunch. Her note said, ‘Please tell your son that there is a separation of church and state,’” according to Liberty Counsel, a religious liberty nonprofit organization that is representing the family.

Ms. Zavala correctly informed the teacher that her son had a constitutional right to talk about his faith with his classmates during lunchtime. After Caleb’s mom continued sending the notes in his lunches, the teacher again publicly reprimanded him, causing him to leave school in tears.

Caleb was then told that he would have to wait until after school to share the Bible verses and stories with his friends, but shortly thereafter, the school again changed its policy, telling him that he could not share the notes while on school property. Caleb complied with the school’s demands.

Later in the day, a deputy sheriff, called by someone working for the school district, arrived at the Zavala family home, “demanding that [Caleb’s] note-sharing cease altogether because ‘someone might be offended,’” according to Liberty Counsel.

Yes, you read that right – the elementary school was so concerned about one of its students sharing Bible stories and Scripture with his classmates that it called the police.

“You have ignorance of the law, hostility toward Christianity, and a gross abuse of police power,” Roger Gannam, a lawyer with Liberty Counsel, said in an interview with Fox News.

Separation of Church and State

Does the First Amendment require schools to prohibit students from talking about the Bible or sharing their faith at school? Of course not.

One of the most commonly misunderstood principles of the American founding is the meaning of the phrase “separation of church and state.” Modern secularists falsely contend that separation of church and state – which appears nowhere in the Constitution – prohibits public schools from teaching Christian principles as truth in the classroom, bars legislators from appealing to religious principles in debates about public policy, disallows city council sessions and high school graduations from opening with prayer, and forbids schools and courthouses from displaying the Ten Commandments.

These assertions are incompatible with the vision and intent of those who framed our Constitution.

The First Amendment to the Constitution states, in part, that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Not only does the First Amendment preclude the establishment of a particular denomination, but it also prevents the government from interfering with a person’s free exercise of their religion – which includes the right of a first grader to share Bible stories with his classmates at school.

What about the establishment clause? A report adopted by the U.S. Senate in 1853 defined “established religion.” For a religious denomination to be considered established, Congress must fund it through the national treasury, give special political rights to its members, and compel nonmembers to attend services and participate in its sacraments through compulsory attendance laws.

Obviously, none of the scenarios previously given rise to the standard of Congress establishing a particular religion or denomination – and the First Amendment in no way implies that a school has the authority to prohibit a first grader from talking about the Bible with his friends at lunch.

The Founders’ Vision for Public Education

Our current system of public education would be unrecognizable to the founding fathers who conceived the First Amendment. It is indisputable that they believed that public schools should teach the general principles of Christianity, including the Bible.

In a letter to his cousin John Adams, Samuel Adams wrote that the foremost purpose of education was

“Inculcating in the minds of youth the fear and love of the Deity and universal philanthropy, and, in subordination to these great principles, the love of their country; of instructing them in the art of self-government, without which they never can act a wise part in the government of societies, great or small; in short, of leading them in the study and practice of the exalted virtues of the Christian system…”

Fisher Ames, one of the primary authors of the First Amendment, lamented that the proliferation of textbooks in the classroom diverted precious education time away from the Bible:

“It has been the custom of late years to put a number of little books into the hands of children… Why then, if these books for children must be retained (as they will be), should not the Bible regain the place it once held as a school book?”

Similarly, Benjamin Rush, a prominent founding father commonly referred to by historians as the Father of Public Schools Under the Constitution, wrote in his essay, “A Defense of the Use of the Bible as a School Book,” that the Bible “should be read in our schools in preference to all other books.”

The U.S. Supreme Court once affirmed that public schools had a responsibility to teach the Bible and the general principles of the Christian religion. Chief Justice Joseph Story, writing the unanimous opinion for the Court in Vidal v. Girard’s Executors (1844), declared,

“Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament, without note or comment, be read and taught as Divine Revelation in the [school] – its general precepts expounded… and its glorious principles of morality inculcated? Where can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament?”

The founding fathers would be aghast if they could see a public school calling law enforcement because a first grader shared Bible stories with his friends over lunch. They would likely be equally concerned that the school cited “separation of church and state” as the basis for its actions.

If only our founders could see us now.

This post was originally written for the Family Policy Institute of Washington: http://www.fpiw.org/blog/2016/08/02/police-called-to-stop-7-year-old-boy-from-reading-bible-verses-at-public-school/.

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