Judge Says District Violated Students’ Religious Freedom

By Erik W. Robelen — June 02, 1999 3 min read

A federal judge has found that the Bedford Central school system in New York violated the First Amendment rights of several Roman Catholic students by sponsoring certain activities with religious overtones, such as selling “worry dolls” and directing students to make construction-paper cutouts of a Hindu god.

In a May 21 decision, U.S. District Judge Charles L. Brieant ordered the district to halt the activities he found objectionable and to adopt a policy setting forth clear instructions for teachers and others on maintaining neutrality toward all religions. The judge rejected many of the complaints raised in the lawsuit, however.

In one passage from the ruling, the judge chided school officials for selling the worry dolls--small figures that children were told would chase away bad dreams--in the school store or encouraging students to make them in class.

“The business with the worry dolls is a rank example of teaching superstition to children of a young and impressionable age,” wrote the judge, whose court is based in White Plains.

District officials said Judge Brieant’s decision creates a dangerous precedent.

It could encourage a “level of self-monitoring that becomes self-censorship,” stifling teachers’ creativity and expertise, said Bruce L. Dennis, the superintendent of the 3,700-student Bedford Central district, located in Westchester County.

But James M. Bendell of the Fairfield, N.J.-based American Catholic Lawyers’ Association, who represented the plaintiffs, said he was pleased with the ruling overall.

“The same severe limitations that the courts have imposed on the teaching of [Christianity and Judaism] have to be applied to Eastern, New Age, and alternative religions,” Mr. Bendell said.

Many Claims Rejected

The dispute began four years ago, when several parents complained to school officials about the card game “Magic: The Gathering,” an adventure-style mathematics game that some students were playing at district schools as part of extracurricular clubs.

Mary Ann DiBari, one of the plaintiffs, called the game “blasphemous.”

In response, the superintendent placed a moratorium on playing the game until it could be examined. Several mental-health experts offered their approval, and the ban was lifted.

The parents complained further and began to examine other practices in the district they found troubling.

Ultimately, three families with a total of eight students sued the district in 1996, arguing that the schools promoted Satanism, occultism, and New Age spirituality.

Judge Brieant found three school practices that he deemed unconstitutional: holding an Earth Day celebration that he said encouraged students to worship the Earth; selling worry dolls; and directing students to make a likeness or graven image of a god or religious symbol. The latter complaint was prompted by a lesson on India in which students were asked to make construction-paper cutouts of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha.

The trial included such witnesses as a Sikh yoga instructor, who the plaintiffs said was teaching Hinduism to students, and a self-proclaimed psychic promoting “right-brain stimulation,” who the plaintiffs claimed had required students to engage in a “bogus mystical experience.”

Judge Brieant rejected these and numerous other complaints, including the objections to the card game that prompted the lawsuit.

“No reasonable person could regard sponsoring this game as a teaching of religion,” he wrote.

Warren H. Richmond, the lawyer representing the Bedford Central school board, said that while he was disappointed with the ruling, he applauded the judge’s decision to protect the district’s right to reject a blanket “opt out” policy for objectionable school activities.

“That would have wreaked havoc with the curriculum,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 1999 edition of Education Week as Judge Says District Violated Students’ Religious Freedom