Legal action alleging religious discrimination may potentially be brought against the Temecula Valley Unified School District following an incident in which a teacher purportedly stopped a first-grader from finishing a presentation about the Star of Bethlehem and what it meant to her family at Christmas-time.
Advocates for Faith & Freedom, a Murrieta-based nonprofit legal firm whose stated mission is to “protect religious liberty in the courts,” sent a seven-page demand letter Monday to TVUSD’s superintendent and board president regarding the Dec. 18, 2013 incident at Helen Hunt Jackson Elementary School.
According to the letter, the student, Brynn Williams, brought the Star of Bethlehem to school as part of an assignment to find something at home that represents a family Christmas tradition, put it in a canvas bag provided by the teacher, bring it to school, and be prepared to share the family tradition.
The letter alleged that as Brynn was in the midst of giving her one-minute presentation, the teacher said: “Stop right there! Go take your seat!”
Brynn was allegedly not allowed to finish her presentation by reciting the Bible verse, John 3:16 and the only student not allowed to finish her presentation.
“After Brynn took her seat, the teacher explained to Brynn in front of all the other students that she was not allowed to talk about the Bible or share its verses,” Advocates for Faith & Freedom stated.
Attorney Robert Tyler, Advocates for Faith & Freedom’s general counsel in the case, demanded in the letter that TVUSD adopt a new policy “to prohibit school officials from expressing disapproval or hostility toward religion or toward religious viewpoints expressed by students.”
The letter also demands TVUSD provide a written apology to Brynn and allow her to complete her speech in class.
Advocates for Faith & Freedom threatened further legal action if an appropriate response is not received from TVUSD by Jan. 20.
The firm also calls attention to another letter sent to the district in October 2013 regarding an incident at Margarita Middle School when a student who chose to read the Bible for a class assignment to read a non-fiction work for 30 minutes. When the seventh-grader told the teacher he had read the Book of Genesis, the teacher allegedly told him the Bible did not qualify as non-fiction.
“It appears by the recent incident involving Brynn Williams that the District has done nothing to address the lack of appropriate staff training resulting in ongoing discriminatory practices by its employees,” Tyler wrote.
Reached Tuesday, TVUSD Spokeswoman Melanie Norton confirmed receipt of the letter, as well as the previous one regarding the alleged Margarita Middle School incident.
“The Temecula Valley Unified School District respects all students’ rights under the Constitution and takes very seriously any allegation of discrimination,” Norton wrote in an emailed response to Patch. “Due to the fact that District officials are currently investigating the allegations, it would be inappropriate to provide further comment at this time.”
Advocates for Faith & Freedom became involved with this latest incident following a meeting between the principal of the school and Brynn’s mother, Gina Williams. During the meeting requested by Gina, the principal allegedly informed her that California's Educational Codes support the teacher's actions.
“The principal explained that the school district has strict rules about sharing beliefs publicly because there have been lawsuits,” Tyler wrote. “The principal had apparently spoken to the teacher and said that the teacher had to stop Brynn because ‘we don't want to offend other students.’ Moreover, Gina was told by the principal that, ‘Brynn can write about her beliefs in her journal, in her class work and on her homework, but she is not allowed to share her beliefs aloud to other students.’”
The letter stated that Brynn was invited to recite her speech for the principal without any other students around.
In a follow-up email, the principal purportedly suggested to Gina that the teacher did not "stop" Brynn's presentation, rather the class ran out of time.
In a news release regarding the case, Tyler stated: “The disapproval and hostility that Christian students have come to experience in our nation's public schools has become epidemic. I hope that TVUSD will take the lead role in adopting a model policy to prohibit this abuse that has become all too common place for religious-minded students.”
Advocates for Faith & Freedom stated that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause “prohibits disapproval and hostility toward religion,” and that while teachers and public officials should refrain from establishing or endorsing religion, there is no legal prohibition against students doing so.
Tyler wrote that according to the TVUSD Board Policy 6141.2 (a), “Students may express their beliefs about religion in their homework, artwork and other class work if the expression is germane to the assignment."
Therefore, Tyler wrote, when Brynn was prevented from sharing her family Christmas tradition which involved a religious belief, it would appear the teacher violated that policy.
“It is unclear however, whether the school district interprets this policy to the extent that the policy would protect Brynn's speech and it is unclear whether the school district provides its teachers any guidance for implementing the policy,” Tyler wrote. “Regardless, the teacher humiliated Brynn in front of all her classmates when she stated that Brynn could not talk about the Bible or read any verses.”
Attorney Nic Cocis is serving as co-counsel in this case, and said he experienced religious persecution as an elementary school student in communist Romania before his family immigrated to the United States.
"The censorship of Christianity was something I came to expect in Romanian schools, not here in the United States," Cocis said. “I don't want my kids to experience what I experienced as a Christian in Romania."
Advocates for Faith & Freedom’s representation in the TVUSD situation comes after an incident reported in the West Covina Unified School District. The firm alleged that when first-grader Isaiah Martinez was passing out candy canes with a Biblical message attached, he was allegedly told, "Jesus is not allowed in school.”