This Teacher Never Told a First Grader ‘You’re Not Allowed to Talk About the Bible in School’

I have a hard time believing Christians are under attack in America. Mostly because they’re so totally not. Usually, when Christian groups are upset, it’s not because their rights are being violated, but because they’re no longer getting the privileged treatment they’re used to receiving. So you should always take their complaints with a grain of salt and search for whatever they’re not telling you.

When I heard about first-grader Brynn Williams‘ story, in the back of my mind, I was wondering what really happened because I knew Advocates for Faith & Freedom (a Christian version of the Freedom From Religion Foundation) couldn’t be trusted to share the entire story.

Brynn Williams

Here’s how AFF explained what happened:

On Wednesday, December 18, 2013, Brynn Williams brought home a “share” bag as part of a school assignment. Brynn’s teacher had given every child in her class a canvas bag with verbal instructions to find something at home that represents a family Christmas tradition, put it in the bag, bring it to school, and be prepared to share the family tradition.

Brynn took the Star of Bethlehem from the top of the family Christmas tree to represent her family’s tradition of remembering why Christmas is celebrated. Brynn worked diligently on a one minute presentation in order to explain to the class that her family’s tradition is to remember the birth of Jesus at Christmas time.

On the day of presentations, Brynn began:
“Our Christmas tradition is to put a star on top of our tree. The star is named the Star of Bethlehem. The 3 kings followed the star to find baby Jesus, the Savior of the world. John…”

At that moment, Brynn’s teacher interrupted her and said, “Stop right there! Go take your seat!” Brynn was not allowed to finish her presentation by reciting the Bible verse, John 3:16. In fact, Brynn was the only student not allowed to finish her one-minute presentation. After Brynn took her seat, the teacher explained to Brynn in front of all the other students that she was not allowed to talk about the Bible or share its verses.

What the hell? The teacher’s clearly in the wrong there! I’m on the Christians’ side!… Even though that doesn’t sound like anything a teacher would ever say, and the testimony of a first-grader doesn’t exactly reek of credibility, and the AFF’s claim that the teacher explicitly said to Brynn, “You’re not allowed to talk about the Bible in school” is never even substantiated in the complaint…

Regardless, AFF sent the district a letter voicing their demands:

… Here, the teacher’s censorship of religious content from Brynn’s personal speech was a school-sponsored message of disapproval toward religion.

Further, in the eyes of a vulnerable first grader, the teacher’s action was not only disapproving of Christianity, but hostile toward Christianity and, therefore, unconstitutional…

The right-wing reaction factory was in full swing, with a local Tea Party group even rallying outside the elementary school.

But now, I’ve heard the real story.

Last week, first grade teacher Tammy Williams released a message to the school board addressing the events that took place in her classroom, and it turns out there was a perfectly rational explanation for what happened:

The words that Brynn ‘wrote’ for her presentation. I’m sure her parents had no hand in that whatsoever…

This student was not the last student to present as had been reported. I still had a couple of students after her (which was the Student of the Day and the Student of the Week). When she started her share, she pulled out her golden star that I held for her as she pulled out her prepared speech written by one of her parents. This was unusual because rarely does a student have a prepared statement to read. As I held the star, the student began to read her statement. I helped her with a few words that she was having trouble with. I decided that I would have the student stop after sharing about Mary and Joseph. I felt that it would take too long and I still needed her to take her question and I had a few clarifying questions for her as well. At this point, I simply said the following, “Ok, stop here and you get one question.” She simply put her paper down and picked a student who asked her a question. I also asked her, “Who puts the star on the tree? Do you take turns?” I even suggested that her dad could lift her up to let her put it on the tree. After that, she put her star away and sat with the class while we finished with the other students. I monitor all students this way. She at no time complained or acted sad. She was as happy as always.

I want to be very clear about the following.

At no time did I ever tell the student that she could not read the bottom section because it was a Bible verse nor did she ask if she could finish. I never told her to “Stop right there!” or “Go take your seat!” or reprimand her in front of the class for sharing from the Bible. It just did not happen. This subject matter was never discussed. I decided to stop her at that point so the other students would get their share in before the bell rang. My students have always been free to share their ideas.

What saddens me is that this story was twisted into lies and brought to the media. I have never sat down and discussed this directly with the family or the student. I am instead being used to push an agenda for the Advocates for Faith and Freedom.

Ami Paradise, the principal of Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary School and a Christian herself, stands by Williams:

When I met with the parent on December 20, 2013, she shared that she and her husband were upset that their child was unable to finish her presentation and that they thought it was because it contained a Bible verse. There were absolutely no claims of humiliation or bullying by the classroom teacher. No claims that their child was told to take her seat or that she could not talk about the Bible. These claims have been made in the midst of a media spotlight in order to sensationalize a story. The truth is, there were other students left to present before the end of the day, and there was just not enough time.

I stand behind Mrs. Tammy Williams 110% and find it extremely unfortunate that the Advocates for Faith and Freedom have irrevocably caused damage to her good name. The days will pass and this story will not be at the top of the news for long, but the damage that it has done to the good names of Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary School, Mrs. Tammy Williams, and myself will be difficult to repair.

Did AFF know any of this? Did the parents? Did any of them care? Or did they immediately jump to the conclusion that the teachers and administrators were out to get them without even bothering to have a conversation with them first to sort out the details?

The worst part is that Brynn appears to be caught in the middle of her parents’ paranoia — she did what she was told and her parents are using her as a pawn in their own game.

AFF demanded that the school district adopt a new policy to “prohibit school officials from expressing disapproval or hostility toward religion or toward religious viewpoints expressed by students.” They also demanded an apology to Brynn.

Now that the full story is out there, I’d like to know when AFF plans to issue an apology to Tammy Williams and when they plan to adopt a policy of gathering all the information first before firing off a threatening letter.

(Thanks to Ron for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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