Doing right by students, law

[The following article was written by Mark A. Sereni, solicitor for the Marple Newtown Board of School Directors. It originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 31, 2005, and is reproduced here with the author's permission. Any transcription errors are mine. - JMO.]

Last fall, when an elementary school principal in the Marple Newtown School District asked a parent not to read aloud from the Bible during a program for kindergarten pupils, the district was upholding the law — and protecting the rights of all the children in the class and those of their parents.

The district wasn't making the law or bending it based on special-interest pressure or personal views. It was upholding it. And that is a public school's duty, no matter how difficult or unpleasant the fulfilling of that duty may sometimes be.

At the beginning of the 2004-2005 school year, a kindergarten teacher at Culbertson Elementary School in Newtown Square distributed information to her pupils' parents about a program called "All About Me" week. Parents were invited to prearrange a time to visit the school to share, among other things, a story with the class.

In mid-October, parent Donna Busch arrived at the school during "All About Me" week and asked to read aloud Psalm 118 from the Bible. The teacher sought advice from her principal, Thomas Cook.

Cook, who is also an assisting minister at a local church, was aware that the law prohibited Busch from reading the Bible to the class. He also understood that the kindergarten pupils were only 5 or 6 years old and would view their classmate's mother as an authority figure. He asked Busch to choose something else and, instead, she read from a children's storybook.

The result: More than six months later, Busch sued the school district and Cook, contending that they had discriminated against Christianity and violated the civil rights of her and her son, Wesley.

Pennsylvania's public school districts are governed by federal and state constitutions and laws as they are interpreted by our courts. The primary state statute that regulates our school districts is the Public School Code.

Section 1516 of that code once required that all public school students participate in a mandatory Bible reading at the opening of each school day — something many parents and grandparents likely will remember from their childhoods. But more than 40 years ago, the United States Supreme Court declared that requirement unconstitutional because it violated the federal Constitution's prohibition against government sponsorship of religion.

In 2000, a decision from the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals — whose decisions bind our school districts — reinforced the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling. In that case, a public school in Medford, Burlington County, had prohibited a first-grade pupil from reading aloud a story from a children's Bible to his entire class during a mandatory classroom exercise. The court ruled that the school lawfully prohibited the Bible reading because it would have violated the federal Constitution's prohibition against government sponsorship of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of this decision.

Another section of the Public School Code, Section 1515, now provides that the Bible or any other religious writing may be studied in public school, but only under specific circumstances: as part of a literature course; at the secondary (not elementary) school level; and if the course is an elective which has been preapproved by the local school board, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and state Board of Education.

Had Donna Busch been permitted to read aloud Psalm 118 to the pupils at Culbertson Elementary School, the Marple Newtown School District would not only have violated the law, but in doing so would have infringed upon the rights of every parent and student in the school district — including those of Busch and her son. It was the district's responsibility to uphold the law, and that is exactly what it did.

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