Another School That Doesn’t Understand the Law

It’s not often that I agree with the Liberty Institute, a Christian right legal group, but they’re right about this case in Nevada, where a school told a 6th grade girl that she could not include a Bible verse in a presentation to her classmates entitled “All about me.”

When Mackenzie Fraiser’s technology teacher assigned the class a PowerPoint project called “All About Me” in February, the Somerset Academy sixth-grader wanted to include a slide with one of her favorite Bible verses, John 3:16.

The teacher at the public charter school in North Las Vegas said no.

Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for the Texas-based Liberty Institute, a religious rights law firm, joined the Fraiser family Wednesday afternoon to tell the story in front of the federal courthouse.

The North Las Vegas family is demanding an apology from the school and said they will seek legal relief if they don’t get it.

Mackenzie is proud of her Christian faith, and her father, Tim Fraiser, 37, is a pastor at Grace Point Church, a nondenominational Christian church. It made sense to her to include a quote about God’s love for the world in a presentation about herself.

But the technology teacher at Somerset disagreed. When the teacher saw Mackenzie had included the verse, she told the girl to take it out…

Fraiser said he was shocked when his daughter told him she shouldn’t because she’s not allowed to talk about God at school. He emailed the school to find out why his daughter was instructed she wasn’t allowed to use “Biblical sayings” in assignments.

“Can you please explain if this is true? Perhaps, she misunderstood you? Since I am certain you understand that this clearly infringes on my daughters/your students right to freedom of speech, I want to make sure we understand your instructions,” he wrote on April 29.

Two days later he received a response from Assistant Principal Jenyan Martinez.

“When Mackenzie created the project with the expectation she would present the Biblical saying to the class, the matter became one of having a captive audience that would be subject to her religious beliefs. Had the assignment been designed to simply hand in for a grade, this would not have been an issue. Therefore, considering the circumstances of the assignment, Miss Jardine appropriately followed school law expectations by asking Mackenzie to choose an alternate quote for the presentation,” Martinez wrote.

As a legal matter, this is just plain wrong. If you’re going to give a student an assignment to talk about themselves, you can’t then tell them that they can talk about anything they want other than their religious beliefs. The captive audience argument is legally irrelevant. I know of no case ever that has said anything like that when it involves a classroom assignment. The school says they’re investigating it now and they should apologize and allow her to do the assignment they way she wants.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • eric

    On top of the verse, it would be perfectly appropriate for someone with that assignment to talk about their family and family interests/activities. With her dad being a pastor, that’s going to include mentions of religion and church.

    It kind of reminds me of Holy Grail. “What is your favorite color?” “Red…no, blue!” Evidently, if you present your favorite literary verse here, you get thrown off the cliff too.

  • John Pieret

    Here’s how the ACLU puts it:

    Religious or anti-religious remarks made in the ordinary course of classroom discussion or student presentations are permissible and constitute a protected right. If in a sex education class a student remarks that abortion should be illegal because God has prohibited it, a teacher should not silence the remark, ridicule it, rule it out of bounds or endorse it, any more than a teacher may silence a student’s religiously-based comment in favor of choice. …

    Teachers may rule out-of-order religious remarks that are irrelevant to the subject at hand. In a discussion of Hamlet’s sanity, for example, a student may not interject views on creationism.

    https://www.aclu.org/joint-statement-current-law-religion-public-schools

    Here the inclusion of a single Bible verse she finds inspiring in an assignment about herself was clearly relevant and academically justified. Of course, she couldn’t conduct a religious revival during class time because that would be preaching to a captive audience.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    It’s not often that I agree with the Liberty Institute, a Christian right legal group, but they’re right about this case in Nevada…

    To be fair, you don’t agree and they’re not right. You’re defending Free Speech; they’re defending one of their own. That your both in the right is incidental to their actual position. Change “Christian” to “Muslin”, for example and you’d be standing in opposition.

  • sinned34

    Admit it, Ed – you just wrote this post where you agree with Liberty Institute as an attempt to make dukedog7’s head explode.

  • Kaintukee Bob

    In fairness, it looks more like a teacher is (mistakenly) trying to apply what they were taught about why they can’t include such things to a student.

    Don’t get me wrong: The teacher is wrong here. The student should absolutely be allowed to present an on-topic mention of her religious views in an assignment that focuses on who she is. For many religious people, their religion is a core part of their sense of self, and it absolutely infringes upon her free speech to not be allowed to express that.

    What I see here, though, is a teacher that’s trying to do the right thing, and failing. S/He should absolutely apologize to the student and let the presentation occur with the verse in place.

    It also sounds like both the teacher and the assistant principal should go through a bit more training about proper separation of religion and the classroom – they’re 90% of the way there, but that last 10% is just as important as the rest.

  • grumpyoldfart

    Watch what happens if (when) the teacher is told not to censor bible verses. Christian children in the class will go berserk with bible verses jammed into every presentation they are required to give to the class. Not because they are religious; just because it gives them a chance to cock a snoot at the teacher.

  • whheydt

    Re: sinned34 @ #4….

    I’m waiting for him to pop in and tell us if he thinks that settling this with an apology and no lawsuit is sufficient.

  • eric

    @6: my guess is that if that were to happen, the “write about yourself” assignment would disappear from next year’s curriculum. This is a “this is why we can’t have nice things” sort of situation.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    eric “@6: my guess is that if that were to happen, the “write about yourself” assignment would disappear from next year’s curriculum.”

    I’m surprised they still have it. My school dropped that assignment after I turned mine in. It couldn’t be topped, apparently, and made all the other kids feel bad about themselves.

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    So, I suppose this is my own cultural failing, but when you say “John 3:16” …

    …what I hear is that you’ll be waiting a long time for your turn at the Mustang Ranch.

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    @Kaintuckee Bob:

    In fairness, it looks more like a teacher is (mistakenly) trying to apply what they were taught about why they can’t include such things to a student.

    Don’t get me wrong: The teacher is wrong here. The student should absolutely be allowed to present an on-topic mention of her religious views in an assignment that focuses on who she is. For many religious people, their religion is a core part of their sense of self, and it absolutely infringes upon her free speech to not be allowed to express that.

    What I see here, though, is a teacher that’s trying to do the right thing, and failing.

    Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dispatches/2015/05/22/another-school-that-doesnt-understand-the-law/#ixzz3atvhDdtb

    That’s how I see it as well.

    I further note that despite the school’s unconstitutional mistake in prohibiting the quote, the teacher did *not* berate the student in front of the class.

    Just saying.

    I expect that the school really is trying to do it right, and therefore this will be settled well and quickly when they get the right legal info. I wish it were as easy to get the theocrats to admit error and reverse course as I believe it will be easy to get this school to do.

  • DaveL

    @9

    Modus, I don’t suppose your assignment ended with “The Aristocrats!”?

  • Michael Heath

    If a student presents this verse, is it out of bounds for the teacher to use John 3:16 as an illustration of incoherent (logically inconsistent) thinking?

    I’m betting current precedent would make it unconstitutional for the teacher to teach this lesson; where that’s one more example of the government unconstitutionally privileging religion at the expense of children’s rights.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002686842900 ChristineRose

    I think we can all support the legal rights of Muslin, as well as Jersey and Denim.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty — Survivor

    I disagree.

    “As a legal matter, this is just plain wrong. If you’re going to give a student an assignment to talk about themselves, you can’t then tell them that they can talk about anything they want other than their religious beliefs.”

    It’s not that she was mentioning her faith in passing, or briefly summarizing her beliefs for the presentation, it’s that she planned on reading a verse from her holy book — an act that any reasonable person would interpret as proselytizing — to an audience that is legally required to be in attendance.

    The captive audience defense is absolutely relevant!

  • eric

    @13: given that this class assignment was “students develop presentations where they talk about themselves,” then obviously yes it would be unconstitutional. Not to mention dickish. If the class was studying logical fallacies, then maybe not – then maybe it would just be a really poor choice of example (given the religion of most of the students, the first amendment, and the captive audience nature of High School)

  • dingojack

    WMD – so if I quote “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”* (from the Bhagavad Gita) to a group of students in a class, am I proselytizing on behalf of Teachings of International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)*, or am I reading a passage from a famous Hindu literary work that means a lot to me personally?

    Dingo

    ———

    * for example

  • John Pieret

    WMDKitty — Survivor:

    It’s not that she was mentioning her faith in passing, or briefly summarizing her beliefs for the presentation, it’s that she planned on reading a verse from her holy book — an act that any reasonable person would interpret as proselytizing — to an audience that is legally required to be in attendance.

    The captive audience defense is absolutely relevant!

    Sorry, as a lawyer, I can’t agree. You are not constitutionally protected from knowing that other people are religious. You are, at most, constitutionally protected from being coerced, by the state or peer pressure (as at graduation ceremonies). from being pressured to participate in others’ religious beliefs. As far as the story reveals, she wanted to include a single slide of a Biblical verse related to her own beliefs in an assignment about herself as a person. Are you seriously arguing that a student, say, in discussing civics, like abortion or gay rights, has to be shushed if she says ‘I’m a Christian and I believe …’ (anti or pro gay)?

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty — Survivor

    Well, John, she should be keeping her fairy-tales to herself, instead of showing the rest of the class just what a deluded loony she really is.

    I guarantee you she’s That Kid. The one that everybody hates because they can’t do anything without bringing their religion into it, and being loud and obnoxious about it. After all, she has parents that contacted a known anti-American group to complain that their daughter was reprimanded for doing an assignment wrong.

  • AnatomyProf

    if a Christian kid can present a Bible verse to explain why she is Christian, an atheist kid can present a Bible verse to explain why she is atheist.

    Why shouldn’t school children learn that life is a series of religious conflicts while they are still in school?

  • John Pieret

    Sorry, WMDKitty — Survivor, we lawyers are condemned for our sins to defend the rights of the obnoxious just as much as the non-obnoxious. Worse, under our laws, you and I are not allowed to totally banish the obnoxious and/or loony from our lives. We can only hope to keep them from the levers of power, which requires us to give them a voice, just as we want a voice. Otherwise, it is just a Mad Max struggle over those levers. No matter how annoying, the kid was not, apparently, out to proselytize in an unconstitutional way and, therefore, her rights have to be protected so our own can be.

  • matty1
  • whheydt

    Re: matty1 @ #22…

    The Archbishop of Dublin is having trouble understanding why so many young adults in Ireland voted in same-sex marriage. He notes that most of them went through 12 years of Catholic schools. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that that may be a big part of WHY they voted contrary to the wishes of the church…they know it only well, rather than not well enough (as the Archbishop thinks).

  • Lofty

    The Archbishop of Dublin wouldn’t have his job if he didn’t wilfully shut out any information that contradicted his own schooling.