Philly Schools in Legal Spat over Bible

At an elementary school outside Philadelphia, kindergartners get to choose their favorite book for a parent to read to class. One 6-year-old chose the Bible, but the school refused to let his mother read it. Joel Rose of member station WHYY reports from the latest battleground in the fight over religion in public schools.

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A school outside Philadelphia is one of the latest battlegrounds in the fight over religion in America's public schools. A woman in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, is suing her school district because she was not allowed to read the Bible to her son's kindergarten class. School officials say they were protecting the rights of other students. From member station WHYY, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

During Me Week, each kindergartner at Culbertson Elementary School in Newtown Square gets to pick a favorite book for a parent to read to the class. Six-year-old Wesley Busch chose the Bible. His mother, Donna Busch, says she was planning to read a verse from Psalms, until the school's principal told her she couldn't.

Ms. DONNA BUSCH (Mother): I was trying to read from my child's favorite book. It just so happened the book was the Bible. And they took his freedom of speech away and embarrassed him, made him feel bad.

ROSE: A few days later, Busch says, her son Wesley saw her reading from the Bible, as she does nearly every morning.

Ms. BUSCH: He said, `Mom, watcha doing, reading your Bible?' And I said, `Yes, I'm reading my Bible.' And he says, `Well, that's bad.' And I said, `No, no, no, that's not bad. Who told you that was bad?' And he said, `Well, our teacher did.' And I said, `Well, you know, they were wrong.'

ROSE: Busch decided to sue the school district, claiming her rights of religious expression had been infringed. The suit alleges that other religious expressions were permitted in class--Hanukkah decorations, for instance--but hers were not. The school district, though, says it did nothing wrong.

Mr. ED PARTRIDGE(ph) (President, Marple Newtown School Board): You cannot read a religious book in a public school environment. It's not the place. The law doesn't allow it.

ROSE: Ed Partridge is president of the Marple Newtown School Board. He says the school district cannot promote specific religious views in the classroom.

Mr. PARTRIDGE: You can discuss religion in a context of cultural traditions, historical context, but you cannot teach religion. We need to protect our students and our families and the community.

ROSE: Partridge says the suit is merely an attempt to grab headlines. But the school district is fighting back. It's hired a public relations firm to get its message out. Donna Busch also has high-powered support. After discussing the issue with friends at her church, Busch called the Rutherford Institute. The conservative public interest law firm in Charlottesville, Virginia, is now funding her lawsuit. Founder John Whitehead says the institution works on 80 to a hundred cases at a time, many of them involving religious liberties. In the case of Donna Busch, Whitehead says the school district overreacted.

Mr. JOHN WHITEHEAD (Founder, Rutherford Institute): This would be a different case, I think, if the teacher said, `By the way, I want to read you four passages from the Bible.' I think that would really raise the idea of separation of church and state under the establishment clause of the First Amendment. But what you had here was different parents, all through the year, coming in and doing this, and then they see one book that's religious and they say, `You can't do that.' It's just censorship.

ROSE: Religion does have a place in the public schools, agrees the Reverend Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. For example, he says, it's fine to discuss the Bible in the context of a high school class, but Lynn says the school was right to stop Donna Busch from reading to six-year-olds.

Reverend BARRY LYNN (Director, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State): It's just very difficult to explain to someone in kindergarten or first grade that a presentation on a religious theme from an authority figure, whether that's a teacher or a parent, is not the promotion of religion. Children assume they're supposed to do what that authority figure says.

ROSE: Courts have been reluctant to allow even other children to read from the Bible in a classroom. In 1996, a New Jersey mother sued because her son's teacher would not allow him to read a biblical story to other first-graders. The school won that case. The Marple Newtown School District says it will vigorously fight Donna Busch's lawsuit. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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