8-Year-Old Told to Pick 'Different' Hero Other Than Jesus for Class Assignment; School Denies Allegations

A mother has accused a North Carolina elementary school of prohibiting her daughter from writing about Jesus for a class assignment. The school denied the allegations, saying it never restricted the 8-year-old student from choosing her topic.

Heather Watts claims a second-grade teacher at Cerro Gordo Elementary School in Columbus County, N.C., recently told her daughter, Ryleigh, that she should not choose Jesus as her hero for a writing assignment. The 8-year-old was reportedly asked by the teacher to write about someone "different."

The mother has now contacted the local WCET-TV news station to express her disappointment with the school's alleged actions. Watts told the local news outlet that she believes her daughter should have the freedom to choose what she wishes to write about.

WCET-TV also obtained a copy of Ryleigh's original assignment. The 8-year-old girl wrote on the assignment that her hero is Jesus because he "helps me … makes me better. He makes good things happen." The second grader then listed the ways that Jesus helps her, including "[helping] me learn," as well as "[making] me better if I am sick" or "when I am sad."

The school has denied the incident ever took place, releasing a statement to WCET-TV that says Ryleigh was never asked to change her topic choice for the assignment. "After speaking with both the teacher and the principal, we have learned that students were not restricted from writing on any topic of their choosing." The school added that Columbus County School District encourages students to express their beliefs, and also encourages parents to first address their concerns with the school's administrators and teachers.

Heather Watts told WECT-TV that the issue still hasn't been resolved, even after meeting with the school principal and Ryleigh's teacher. Watts said the school is still asking her daughter to pick a new topic for her assignment.

A similar incident took place in October 2013 near Memphis, Tenn., when 10-year-old Erin Shead was told by her teacher at Lucy Elementary School that she could not write about God for a school assignment where students were asked to write about their idol.

Erica Shead, the student's mother, took her daughter's experience to the local WREG-TV media outlet, saying she made the story public to shed light on the diminishing religious freedom found in America's public school system. "I just wanted every Christian to know that we have a right to be able to express ourselves. We understand that they've taken prayer out of schools but they cannot take God out of our children."

Erin's story gained wide media attention, and the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal organization seeking to defend religious liberty, stepped in to help Erin maintain her religious freedom.

"Of course students can talk and write about God in school," Liberty Attorney Jeremy Dys said.

"Young teachers, like Erin's, have been barraged with so much false information for so long that they are afraid that a 10-year-old student's coloring assignment might violate the First Amendment. That kind of intimidation by the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation is wrong and is precisely what Liberty Institute was founded to combat."

Ultimately, the school apologized for how it handled Erin's assignment, admitting that the girl's teacher had been uncertain and nervous about how to deal with the situation. The school then reversed course and accepted Erin's original assignment, giving her a 100 percent mark.