A religious freedom legal group is coming to the aid of a fifth grade student from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who says his First Amendment rights were recently violated when his teacher told him he could not read the Bible during a classroom free-reading period.
The Liberty Institute, a legal group dedicated to defending religious liberty in the U.S., recently sent a letter to Broward County Public Schools, located in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., imploring the school district to revise its policies and offer an apology to Giovanni Rubeo, a fifth grade student at Park Lakes Elementary School who was allegedly told by his teacher that he couldn't read the Bible during a classroom free-read time.
Earlier in April, Rubeo's teacher, Swornia D. Thomas, reportedly told the student that he couldn't read his Bible during the classroom-designated 90 minute free read time. Rubeo's father had previously told his son that if a teacher asked him to put away his Bible, he should tell them "no" and call his father.
When Thomas asked Rubeo to put away his Bible, the student followed the advice of his father, refusing to stop reading the Holy Book. The teacher then demanded Rubeo "put [the Bible] on [her] desk," and when he refused, Thomas called Rubeo's father and left him a voicemail explaining the situation.
"Good morning Mr. Rubeo, Mrs. Thomas. Giovanni called you because I asked him to. I noticed that he has a book – a religious book – in the classroom. He's not permitted to read those books in my classroom. He said, if I told him to put it away you, you said not to do that. So, please give me a call, I need to have some understanding on direction to him about the book he's reading as opposed to the curriculum for public school. Mrs. S. Thomas. Thank you. Have a wonderful day. Bye-bye," Thomas said in the voicemail.
Shortly after the incident, Rubeo's father, Paul, sent a letter to school officials, saying he thought they were violating his son's First Amendment rights by preventing him from reading the Bible during times when students are allowed to read a book of their choice. The school responded, saying Giovanni could read his Bible before school, after school, or during lunch time, but did not address the free-reading periods in classrooms.
The Liberty Institute has now sent a letter to the school district, requesting it issue an apology to Giovanni within 10 days and clarify its policy to ensure all students can read religious texts, like the Bible, during free reading times.
"Banning religious books like the Bible violates Giovanni's civil rights to religious free speech and free exercise," Hiram Sasser, the nonprofit's director of litigation, said in a statement. "The school's actions exemplify the hostility to religion that the US Supreme Court has condemned."
Jeremy Dys, Liberty Institute's senior counsel, added that his legal group "[expects] Broward County Public School officials to resolve this unfortunate incident quickly and amicably."
"Absent such an apology and assurance that students in Broward County Public Schools may read religious books like the Bible during free reading times, our client is prepared to take action."
On Monday, the school district released a statement to CBS News seeking to clarify its position.
"Broward County Public Schools respects and upholds the rights of students to bring personal religious materials to school, including the Bible, and to read these items before school, after school or during any 'free reading' time during the school day. This information has been communicated to the parents of the student involved in this situation."