Court Backs District’s Refusal to Let Parent Read Bible

By Mark Walsh — June 01, 2009 2 min read
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A Personal Note: I haven’t been able to blog over the last two weeks because of a death in my family. In particular, I have not been able to discuss Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s record on education cases. I plan to do so in the coming days. In the meantime, there was this interesting federal appeals court ruling today:

Parent’s Bible Reading: A federal appeals court today held that a school district was on solid ground in refusing to let a parent read Bible passages to her son’s kindergarten class as part of a show-and-tell program.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, ruled 2-1 in favor of the Marple Newton school district in Pennsylvania in a suit brought by Donna Kay Busch.

Busch sought to read passages from the Book of Psalms when she was invited to her son Wesley’s kindergarten class as part of an “All About Me” program. But the school principal told her that reading from the Bible to the kindergartners would be “against the law ... of separation of church and state.”

Busch noted that her son had encountered books about Christmas, Easter, and Hanukkah at the school, and another parent had made presentations about Hanukkah and Passover to the kindergartners.

Busch sued the district and officials under the free speech and establishment-of-religion clauses of the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania state constitution. A federal district court ruled for the school defendants, and in its June 1 decision in Busch v. Marple Newton School District, the appeals court affirmed. The majority opinion by Chief Judge Anthony J. Scirica said:

It may be reasonably argued that a mother’s reading of the Bible to a kindergarten class, especially sublime verses from the Book of Psalms, should be permitted. In this sense and for many, the conduct is benign and the message inspiring. But a reading from the Bible or other religious text is more than a message and unquestionably conveys a strong sense of spiritual and moral authority. In this case, the audience is involuntary and very young. Parents of public school kindergarten students may reasonably expect their children will not become captive audiences to an adult’s reading of religious texts.

U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas M. Hardiman dissented on the mother’s free speech claim, saying the school district practiced viewpoint discrimination.

“Donna Busch’s attempt to read Psalm 118 to her son’s class fell within the
specified subject matter—i.e., something of interest to her son and important to his family—and the sole reason for excluding her speech was its religious character,” Judge Hardiman wrote.

The judge also cited an opinion by Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. when he was a member of the 3rd Circuit court. In a dissent in a 2000 case known as C.H. v. Oliva, Alito said the full 3rd Circuit should have considered a family’s suit challenging how a public school handled a child’s poster depicting Jesus.

“I would hold that public school students have the right to express religious views in class discussion or assigned work,” provided it falls within the scope of the assignment, then-Judge Alito wrote at the time.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.