A mother blocked from reading Bible passages during “show and tell” in her son’s kindergarten class has lost her bid to have the US Supreme Court examine the public school’s actions.
On Tuesday, the high court declined to take up Donna Kay Busch’s lawsuit against the Marple Newtown School District in suburban Philadelphia. The court issued its order dismissing the case without comment.
The action ends a four-year legal battle over whether Ms. Busch, an Evangelical Christian, should have been allowed to read five verses from the Book of Psalms to her son’s class.
Part of 'All About Me' week
The reading was to be part of an in-class assignment in which the children were invited to present important aspects of their lives to their classmates. As part of this “All About Me” week-long assignment, Busch’s son, Wesley, made a poster displaying photographs of himself, his hamster, his brothers, his parents, his best friend, and a construction-paper likeness of his church.
One part of the “All About Me” curriculum included inviting parents to “share a talent, short game, small craft, or story” with the class that would highlight something about their child. Busch said her son asked her to read the Bible to the class, an activity she and her son shared together at home.
The mother selected verses 1-4 and 14 of Psalm 118 from the King James version of the Bible. She later testified that she chose those verses because they were similar to poetry and that they did not make any reference to Jesus. Busch testified that she wanted to avoid any mention of Jesus because she felt there was a level of hostility in the school district to her Christian beliefs.
Busch told Wesley’s teacher in advance what she planned to read. The school principal objected, saying reading from the Bible would violate the First Amendment’s required separation of church and state. He said reading the Bible to kindergarten students in a public school class with required attendance would be promotion of a particular type of religion in violation of constitutional protections against the establishment of state-sponsored religion. He asked her to read from a different book.
The mother took her case to court, charging that the school had violated her right to free speech and equal protection, as well as the First Amendment's establishment clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"). A federal judge and a federal appeals court panel ruled against her.
The appellate judges' reasoning
“It may be reasonably argued that a mother’s reading of the Bible to a kindergarten class, especially sublime verses from the Book of Psalms, should be permitted. In this sense and for many, the conduct is benign and the message inspiring,” wrote Chief Judge Anthony Sirica in a 2-to-1 decision handed down in June by the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals. “But a reading from the Bible or other religious text is more than a message and unquestionably conveys a strong sense of spiritual and moral authority,” he wrote. “In this case, the audience is involuntary and very young. Parents of public school kindergarten students may reasonably expect their children will not become captive audiences to an adult’s reading of religious texts.”
Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman dissented, saying the school district engaged in viewpoint discrimination. He urged the court to adopt clear rules for when such discrimination is permissible in the classroom.
“Donna Busch’s speech came in response to the teacher’s broad invitation to share something about her child; once invited, the school district was obliged to ‘tolerate’ her speech, not to ‘affirmatively promote’ it,” he wrote. He said Busch’s Bible reading would have been understood by the kindergarten students as the private speech of a parent, not as an endorsed message of the school.
“The majority’s desire to protect young children from potentially influential speech in the classroom is understandable,” Judge Hardiman wrote in his dissent. “But that goal, however admirable, does not allow the government to offer a student and his parents an opportunity to express something about themselves, except what is most important to them.”
The case is Busch v. Marple Newtown School District.
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