A Plano-based religious liberty organization applauded the quick actions of a suburban Houston school district in the wake of allegations that a 7-year-old student’s constitutional rights were violated after she was prohibited from reading her Bible at school.
Liberty Institute contacted the school district after the second-grader’s parents raised the allegations. The student—whose identity was not disclosed—was allegedly told by school personnel she could not read the Bible during a free reading period at school and that she was not to bring the Bible to school.
In a letter to Liberty Institute provided to the TEXAN by the school district, the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District (Cy Fair ISD) said that while it has been unable to substantiate the student’s claims, the district is committed to protecting religious freedom in its schools, and that Bible reading is permitted in school when free time is allowed.
The letter, released last week, also said that the principal of Hamilton Elementary School would meet with faculty and staff to explain its policy governing the issue and address any questions or concerns.
“As a school district, our policies clearly support the First Amendment rights of all students. CFISD policy . . .states that ‘A student may express his or her beliefs about religion in homework, artwork and other oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of the student’s submission,’” the district said in an email.
The district also said that homework and classroom work will be judged by “ordinary standards of substance and relevance . . . A student shall not be penalized or rewarded because of religious content.”
In closing, officials said that the district takes allegations involving the violation of students’ civil liberties seriously, and will address concerns as they arise.
Cy Fair ISD spokesperson Nicole Ray said the district has not been able to confirm the incident occurred and that no further complaints have been submitted.
“We have met with the entire staff to review our policy and will continue to respond to any information brought forward,” Ray said.
Michael Berry, Liberty Institute senior counsel, said the matter is considered resolved.
“They did exactly what we asked them to do, which was to tell us and the people of Cy Fair ISD exactly what their policy is on whether or not a student can bring the Bible and to assure that this kind of thing doesn’t occur again,” Berry said. “They provided a very clear statement that as long as the Bible or any other religious material or text would satisfy their school district guidelines, it would be permissible for a student to read the Bible or any other religious text during self-time or independent reading, whatever the case may be.”
Liberty Institute was not advocating any kind of punishment related to the alleged incident, Berry said.
“It was probably more of an understanding of the law on the part of the teacher, so we wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was not a second-grade teacher acting with malicious intent or anything like that,” Berry said. “We simply wanted the school district to clarify what their policy is and to give us assurances and the people inside the Cy Fair ISD assurances that this would not happen again.”
INCIDENTS UP IN SCHOOLS
There is a greater frequency of these types of incidents, Berry said, because of greater activism by anti-religious zealots.
“Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom from Religion Foundation and organizations like that, they have been very successful in waging a campaign of misinformation. They engage in scare tactics and lead school districts to believe that any mention or any reference to religion in our public schools is somehow unconstitutional, which is just flat-out not true.”
School officials and administrators must do a better job of educating their employees on the law. Students are allowed to read the Bible and may engage in religious expression in school, with some restrictions, Berry said.
“The limitations are pretty commonsensical,” he added. “If you’re in the middle of chemistry class or algebra class, a student can’t be reading a Bible, because they’re supposed to be studying chemistry or algebra during that time.”
But the Bible is permitted reading during non-instructional time or independent reading time, Berry said.
“We certainly applaud Cy Fair ISD for how they responded here. They certainly responded in a way we wish every school district would. Unfortunately, it’s the exception rather than the rule.”
In 1993, a Republican Congress passed and a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that sought, among other things, to clarify the rights and responsibilities of public school administrators, teachers and staff, as well as students and teachers as it relates to religious expression in schools.
However, the Supreme Court later ruled that Congress overreached and that RFRA had application only to federal cases. Public schools are under the supervision of the states, and subsequently several states, including Texas, passed their own versions of RFRA.
Texas not only has a state version of RFRA on the books, but also the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, or REVA, a law that applies directly to cases like the one at Hamilton Elementary, Berry said.
“That’s why we assumed that [the Cy Fair case] was a misunderstanding, because Texas law is very clear on this,” Berry said. “Cy Fair ISD got it, and that’s why they responded the way they did. If you were to go to other states that don’t have their own version of RFRA or RIVA, then you might find a very different response.”
What can school districts, as well as students and their parents, do to head off challenges like the one alleged at Hamilton Elementary?
“First, I would tell them not to be so reactionary, not to react in fear of a lawsuit or anything like that,” Berry said. “Often these threatening letters they receive are just threats. They don’t need to respond in fear. We at Liberty Institute would be happy to guide a school district that was concerned about receiving one of these letters in how to respond appropriately and doing an audit of their procedures and policies to make sure they are in good standing with the federal, state and local law. That way, they can take a more proactive than a reactive approach.”
In Texas, understanding of federal and states laws is growing, Berry said, but it’s not where it needs to be.
“I do sense that they are more aware,” Berry said. “I’m certain that at Cy Fair ISD they’re going to be more aware now . . . But we still have a lot of work to do.”
To broaden understanding of students’ rights, Liberty Institute has a webpage dedicated to constitutional questions of religious expression in public schools.