- (Photo: Knox County School District)
A suit brought by Tenn. parents arguing that a principal violated their son's religious rights by stopping him from being involved in an on-campus Bible study has failed in an appeals court.
A three judge panel from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday that Luke Whitson's rights were not violated when the principal of Karns Elementary School in Knox County told him that he should not participate in a Bible study during recess.
Jonathan Scruggs, Alliance Defense Fund Litigation Staff Counsel who represented the Whitson family in court, told The Christian Post that he was "disappointed with the ruling."
"But it's important to note that the 6th Circuit did agree with us that errors were made in the jury trial. The 6th Circuit just ruled that those errors were 'harmless' and did not necessarily affect the outcome of the jury's decision," said Scruggs.
"We certainly agree that errors were made, but we also believe that these errors did in fact affect the outcome and deprived the Whitsons of a fair trial."
Back in 2004, Luke Whitson, then in fourth grade, would meet with friends during recess at Karns Elementary School in Knoxville to read and talk about the Bible. However, a parent complained about their activity, resulting in Karns Elementary Principal Cathy Summa meeting with some of the students who participated in the study.
The school district was taken to court as the Whitsons and the ADF argued that the school had violated the religious rights of their son.
According to a statement released by Summa, her intentions were not to deny the students the right to hold a Bible study during recess but rather to tell them that she did not believe it "was appropriate during the school day."
"While we do not discourage students from reading at recess, I think that a daily planned activity that is stationary or physically static in nature defeats the real purpose of recess," said Summa.
"The purpose is to give students an opportunity to have some physical activity during the school day."
According to the Knox County Board of Education's policy on religious expression, "Students and employees can engage in expression of personal religious views or beliefs within the parameters of current law."
"Knox County Schools neither advances nor inhibits religion."
Scruggs was doubtful that Knox County's policy was enough and was concerned that the recent Sixth Circuit decision could result in history repeating itself.
"We think it is completely vague whether Knox County has the ability and/or desire to protect the religious liberty of its students," said Scruggs.
"And that is part of the problem with the 6th Circuit's opinion – it could potentially embolden Knox County to repeat its past behavior and to restrict students' rights."
As to whether or not there will be an appeal, Scruggs told CP that he was still mulling over the option and had not yet come to a decision.