Friday, January 19, 2018
Education

Sue Carlton: Of Muslims and protests, schools and religion, church and state

In the latest religious battle in Hillsborough County schools — call it Eastergate — a federal magistrate says a fourth-grader should have been allowed to pass out invitations to classmates for an Easter egg hunt to "learn the true meaning of Easter."

And that telling him no violated his right to free speech.

I figured this news would have conservative Christian activist and current School Board candidate Terry Kemple — whose group was behind billboards that called the separation of church and state a lie — cheering.

Hooray for the First Amendment!

Though, actually, what he said was: "It was an accurate ruling."

It got me wondering, though. Would his reaction be the same if a Muslim student tried to invite classmates to learn the true meaning of Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan?

Particularly since Kemple is front and center in the seemingly endless protest that packed School Board meetings after a local Muslim leader was invited to speak to a high school class last year.

A little Eastergate history: Last spring, a student in Temple Terrace wanted to invite schoolmates to an egg hunt organized by his mother and church members "to have fun and learn the true meaning of Easter," the invitation said. Kids can hand out birthday invitations at school, but invitations with religious overtones in public school? The substitute teacher wisely punted this to the principal, who said the rules say no. The mom sued.

Recently, Magistrate Elizabeth Jenkins considered a request for a preliminary injunction and essentially said the boy should not have been kept from handing out his invitations. The case now proceeds in court.

Around here, we know how to get ourselves into a tangle over church and state, public school and religion, and free speech. The very suggestion of giving students a Muslim holiday off sparked a firestorm. Controversy over what religious holidays belonged and didn't on the school calendar had School Board members wringing their hands. And the ensuing national attention did not flatter us.

Kemple fought against holding classes on Good Friday. Now trying to unseat longtime incumbent board member Carol Kurdell, he has been very vocal in speaking out against the head of the local Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, who last year was invited to talk to an advanced placement world history class.

So I asked him: You're for free-speech rights for a student having a Christian-themed party, but not for a guy who might teach teenagers something about a major religion?

Kemple insists the battle is not anti-Muslim, but anti-CAIR. He and others who show up to protest at board meetings say CAIR has ties to terrorism, a charge CAIR denies.

So I ask the Ramadan question: Would the judge's Eastergate ruling apply equally to a Muslim student's holiday?

"The answer to the question is yes," he said. And this is a more moderate tone than you might expect from someone who has compared CAIR in the classroom to inviting someone from the North American Man-Boy Love Association, a pro-pedophilia group, or the Ku Klux Klan.

Interesting thing about the First Amendment: It turns out to be good both for being able to say what you think and for hearing what's being said.

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