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Pasco school officials field complaints that students' religious rights were violated

Northwest Elementary School student Katie Lynch, who attends church every Wednesday and Sunday, said she was happy that the school will let her read the Bible now. [
DAVID W. DOONAN | Special to the Times]
Northwest Elementary School student Katie Lynch, who attends church every Wednesday and Sunday, said she was happy that the school will let her read the Bible now. [ DAVID W. DOONAN | Special to the Times]
Published Dec. 12, 2015

HUDSON — As soon as she heard the assignment to discuss injustices, Northwest Elementary School fifth-grader Katie Lynch knew her topic.

She would discuss how it wasn't right that her teacher wouldn't let her bring a Bible to school.

But when the Pasco County 11-year-old approached the teacher with her idea, she got turned down flat.

"My teacher said she could get fired," Katie said. "The whole conversation ended with, 'Do not bring it up again.' "

She did, though, with family pastor Steve Gerhart of the First Baptist Church Hudson. Gerhart shot off an email to school superintendent Kurt Browning, seeking immediate redress.

The pastor had heard too many stories like Katie's lately.

A Hudson Elementary student reported not being allowed to write about faith in any assignments. A Hudson Middle student told of being barred from reading the Bible during free time. Some kids, including Katie, told Gerhart they couldn't bring their Bibles to school at all.

"You and I both know that these are direct violations of the students' rights to express themselves," he wrote to Browning. "I am writing this to you . . . in a hope that this will be addressed and stopped."

Every year, especially around the winter holidays, issues tend to arise surrounding how much religion may permeate public school classrooms. Can the winter concert include songs about baby Jesus? Can teachers discuss the religious aspects of the holidays that children celebrate?

As a general rule, the answer boils down to "teach, don't preach."

School employees are not to promote religion, but they can discuss it academically. And they must not inhibit children's freedoms, so long as those don't interfere with the lessons at hand. Paging through the Bible during free reading time, for example, is allowed.

The U.S. Department of Education makes this clear in its guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public schools: "As the (Supreme) Court has explained in several cases, 'there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect.'"

Still, complaints regarding students' rights arise, said Matt Sharp, legal counsel to the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom. Students are told they can't read religious texts while their classmates read Harry Potter novels. Children get to write about Martin Luther King Jr. as an inspirational figure, but not about Jesus.

"A lot of it comes from the misperception of (the separation of) church and state," Sharp said. "While there are limits on what teachers can do, a lot of times they mistakenly think they have to impose the same requirements on students."

Usually, Sharp said, a letter to school officials clears things up. That was Gerhart's hope.

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He wanted to make sure the children don't give up in the face of what he called teacher "intimidation."

After getting the complaint, Pasco School District officials began asking questions. They quickly learned that some teachers who did not understand district policies and federal guidelines had indeed limited students' religious rights, without seeking guidance.

Principals "never have told the staff anything like that," said Todd Cluff, area superintendent for northwest Pasco schools. "There shouldn't be any reason that they shouldn't be able to read the Bible for enjoyment, if that's what they want to read."

The only issue that might arise, Cluff added, is if the children were asked to read materials at a specific reading level and the Bible did not match up. Students should be able to discuss religion in classes, he added.

"I don't know why a teacher would be saying (otherwise)," he said.

Cluff said Northwest's principal, Nicole Reynolds, met with Katie and her teacher to explain that students have every right to read and talk about the Bible. The district took a similar position two years ago when telling high school football coaches they could not lead pregame prayers, but the players could pray together independently.

"I wish we would have caught it before the speeches were over," Cluff said, referring to the assignment in Katie's class. "If she wanted to give a speech about that, she should have been able to."

He said he was working to determine how widespread such misperceptions might be.

School Board Chairwoman Joanne Hurley said she hasn't heard many complaints about abridging students' religious rights during her nearly eight years in office. It might be time for a refresher, she said.

"We want there to be equity throughout our system," Hurley said. "Let's use this as a teaching moment for staff."

Gerhart, the pastor, said he was gratified that the district responded positively to his concerns.

"I want to have a relationship with the schools, where we can go in and help," he said.

Katie, who attends church every Wednesday and Sunday, said she was happy that the school will let her read the Bible now. She said she's inspired by the creation story in Genesis and enjoys reading about it.

Yet she's still upset because she says her teacher told her not to talk about it with her friends.

"It makes me sad, because I think that some people, when they're down or something and they're sad because someone hurt their feelings, they need to know that it's going to be all right because the person who created them still loves them," Katie said.

Katie's principal and teacher did not return calls for comment.

Her dad, Robert Lynch, said he planned to keep a close eye on the schools going forward to make sure his daughter's rights remain intact.

"There's so much stuff that's not in school anymore, and it's being taken away from us," he said "We had a holiday concert (recently). There was no mention of God or anything like that in the songs. It's a shame."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.