By Bob Allen
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee is speaking up for an elementary school student reportedly told he could not read the Bible during an after-school program funded by taxpayers.
The group often in the news for opposing attempts to promote religious activities in public schools recently sent a letter to the Cannon County REACH after-school program explaining that students have a right to read religious texts if they so choose during free-reading periods.
The letter was on behalf of a boy reportedly told by staff of the program that operates sites in several county schools funded primarily by state and federal grants that he could read any book except the Bible and that he would have to put the Bible away. When he refused, staff reportedly tried to take his Bible from him, claiming the state could shut the program down if they allowed him to read it.
“The First Amendment exists to protect religious freedom,” Thomas Castelli, ACLU-Tennessee legal director, said in a press release. “While this means that schools may not impose or promote religion, it also means that students can engage in religious activities that they initiate, provided they do not cause a disruption or interfere with the education of other students.”
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of Tennessee ACLU, said the goal of the letter was to clarify “what seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Constitution protects religious liberty.”
The REACH program, which stands for Reach: Enrichment, Afterschool and Community Health, provides opportunities for growth and enrichment in children pre-kindergarten through high school, including peer tutoring, mentoring and academic assistance. Grammar school sites provide a nutritional snack.
The program drew criticism in 2012 when the state conducted an investigation of audit deficiencies and alleged misuse of public funds.
The ACLU opposes legislation recently passed by the Tennessee state senate to ensure students can express their religious views at school. An action alert said the Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act “crosses the line from protecting religious freedom into creating systematic imposition of some students’ personal religious viewpoints on other students.”
The bill requires local school systems to establish “a limited public forum” for student speakers at any school event at which a student is to publicly speak which “does not discriminate against a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject.”
The ACLU says the measure, expected to be signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, makes it likely that students with a range of religious beliefs will routinely be required to listen to religious messages with which they disagree.
“Public schools are not Sunday schools,” the ACLU commented.