Education

Justices Refuse Appeal on Mother’s Bible-Reading in Class

By Mark Walsh — January 19, 2010 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court today refused to hear the appeal of a Pennsylvania mother who was barred from reading a Bible passage during a visit to her son’s kindergarten class.

Donna Kay 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. Children at Culbertson Elementary School in the Marple Newton School District were instructed to discuss their family, hobbies, or interests, and parents were invited to “share a talent, short game, small craft, or story” during their child’s turn.

When Busch began reading from the Bible in her son’s class, the teacher summoned the principal, Thomas Cook. Cook told Busch that reading from the Bible to the kindergartners would be “against the law ... of separation of church and state, and we can’t let that kind of thing happen in this school.”

Busch noted in court papers that her son had encountered books about Christmas, Easter, and Hanukkah at the school, and that 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,

Last June, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, ruled 2-1 in favor of the school district. The majority said a Bible reading in public school “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,” the court added.

The dissenting judge would have upheld the mother’s free-speech claim, saying the district engaged in viewpoint discrimination against religious speech.

The mother’s appeal to the Supreme Court, backed by the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute, said the 3rd Circuit court’s decision “leaves neither public school administrators nor students, parents, or any other party with any clear guidance” as to when schools may suppress viewpoints in school-sponsored activities.

In a brief urging the high court to deny review in the case, the Marple Newton school district said that the mother was trying to “make Wesley’s ‘All About Me’ week ‘all about her,’” and that there was no split in the appeals court on parents reading the Bible to public school kindergartners.

The justices considered the mother’s appeal in Busch v. Marple Newton School District (Case No. 09-315) at several of their private conferences in recent weeks, but they declined it without comment or dissent on Tuesday.

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

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