Thirteen-year-old Amber Mangum lives with her grandmother Maryann, who adopted Amber and her sister Ashley. The family attends a small church where, according to Maryann, everyone knows everyone else and a helping hand is always there when you need it.
Approximately a year and a half ago, Amber went up to the pastor of her small church and asked to be baptized. Since then, she has been eager to learn all she can about her faith, attending church Bible studies, doing nightly devotionals with her family and reading the Bible.
Maryann, who has been a Christian for six years, has noticed the positive difference that Christianity has made in Ambers life. Pleased that Amber wants to learn more about her faith, Maryann is encouraged that Amber finds comfort in her Christian beliefs. She understands what it means to be a Christian, said Maryann. Shes come to understand that even if someones mean to you, a Christian doesnt hold a grudge.
Amber is an honor roll student and is an avid reader. So it was not unusual that on September 14, 2006, as the seventh-grader finished eating and had five or ten minutes before her next class, Amber pulled out a book to read.
Amber has read an assortment of books during her lunch hour, ranging from the Quidditch adventures of Harry Potter and the Guinness Book of World Records to Goosebumps and Anamorphs. On this particular day, Ambers chosen reading material was the Bible. She was reading the passage in Matthew that is commonly referred to as the Beatitudes.
Thats when her troubles began. Amber was approached by a school official at Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School in Prince Georges County, Md., while silently reading her Bible in the school cafeteria.
Posters hanging in the classrooms proclaim Read to lead, which is in keeping with school policy that allows students to read books or engage in interpersonal communications during non-instructional time at school, including lunch periods. No one ever told Amber not to read Harry Potter or Goosebumps. No one ever suggested that her previous choice of reading material might be inappropriate or out of place in a school setting. In fact, other students have been observed reading books containing questionable language, but Amber doesnt recall them ever having been told to stop reading.
However, perhaps this particular school official wasnt quite up-to-speed on school policy or the Constitution. Thats because when the school official noticed that Amber was reading the Bible, she informed Amber that reading a Bible was a violation of the schools policy and warned her that she would be subject to more severe disciplinary action if she were ever found reading a Bible at school again.
To Amber, who that same day had learned about the First Amendment and its provision to protect freedom of religion and speech in her history class, the schools actions made no sense. I thought you could read whatever you wanted as long as youre not disturbing anyone with it, said Amber. I felt like I was doing something bad. I felt that they were taking away my rights.
Ambers mother felt exactly the same way. And thats why the Mangum family decided to stand and fight. With the help of The Rutherford Institute, theyve filed a lawsuit in federal court, asking the court to declare that prohibiting students from reading Bibles or other religious texts during their free time is unconstitutional. As Maryann said, If you believe something is right, you have to stand up for it.
But the problem has to do with more than our school officials being woefully ignorant about the Constitution and what it says about our rights as Americans. More than mere ignorance or political correctness, incidents like this one in Maryland stem from a growing hostility toward all things Christian that is fueled by groups promoting a secular agenda. Unfortunately, the ones to suffer from such hostilityand it is hostility toward the Christian religionare people like Amber and her family.
Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, is a good example of someone who has allowed her skewed perceptions of right-wing groups (her words) to influence her attitude about Christians. As Johnson stated in an interview with CNSNews.com, What probably happened is this kid, Ill bet you, was being disruptive. I bet this kid was proselytizing, was preaching, doing something that was annoying other kids and was told to stop. Kids dont normally want to read the Bible at lunch timeI dont care who they are. Its just not something kids want to do.
Honestly, what would you rather see a teenager doing, throwing spit wads or sitting silently reading a few passages from the Bible? Johnsons brand of malice certainly doesnt help, but it doesnt really matter what people like Johnson think because this was not a case of someone breaking the law. This was simply a child minding her own business by silently reading the Bible in her free-time. And thats what makes this case so outrageous.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Information about the Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.