Though individuals have the right to identify and practice their religion in school, public school officials should be given latitude "within a range of reasonableness" in deciding what might be deemed as a school-approved promotion of a religious message, a federal court of appeals ruled Monday.
And when officials at the Marple Newtown School District in Philadelphia barred the mother of a kindergartner from reading a passage in the Bible for a "show and tell" exercise, they acted in a way that was "not unreasonable," the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stated Monday in affirming the judgment of the District Court two years ago.
When Culbertson Elementary School student Wesley Busch asked his mother to read from his favorite book, the Bible, in front of classmates as part of the class's "All About Me" assignment, school officials told his mother, Donna Kay Busch, that reading the Bible to the class would be "against the law . . . of separation of church and state."
The school's principal, in particular, said he determined it improper to read from the Bible because he believed "reading that to kindergarten students is promoting religion and it's proselytizing for promoting a specific religious point of view."
"The public school setting may implicate the Establishment Clause, especially where public authority undertakes or is reasonably perceived to have undertaken to give one religious belief official approval or approval over other religious beliefs," Anthony Joseph Scirica, chief judge of the appeals court, wrote on behalf of the appeals court Monday.
"And this tension is particularly vexing in a public school where attendance is compulsory and moral and social values are being developed along with basic learning skills," he added. "In seeking to address that tension, elementary school administrators and teachers should be given latitude within a range of reasonableness related to preserving the school's educational goals."
Notably, however, Scirica did state that mother's reading of the Bible to a kindergarten class should be permitted, "especially sublime verses from the Book of Psalms" – namely Psalm 118:1-4, 14 from the King James Bible.
"In this sense and for many, the conduct is benign and the message inspiring," he wrote.
Judge Thomas M. Hardiman, meanwhile, wrote in his dissenting opinion that he believed the school went too far in this case in limiting participation in "All About Me" week to nonreligious perspectives.
"As the District Court properly noted, Donna Busch was denied the opportunity to read the story her son chose because it expressed a religious viewpoint, rather than a secular one. This plainly constituted viewpoint, not subject matter, discrimination," he wrote.
But in the end, the court determined that the school's actions did not violate the
Establishment Clause because they were motivated by a permissible purpose to comply with the Establishment Clause; they do not evidence hostility toward Wesley's faith; and they are not excessively entangled with religion as Busch suggested.
"For the foregoing reasons, we will affirm the judgment of the District Court," the court stated.
The court ruled 2-1 in favor of the Marple Newtown School District.