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Attorney: Temecula Teacher Stops 1st-Grader From Talking About Jesus in School

The Temecula Valley Unified School District is facing a possible religious discrimination lawsuit over the incident.

Temecula first-grader Brynn Williams is pictured with a Star of Bethlehem from atop her family's Christmas tree. She brought the star to school as part of an assignment to share a family Christmas tradition, attorneys say. (Courtesy photo)
Temecula first-grader Brynn Williams is pictured with a Star of Bethlehem from atop her family's Christmas tree. She brought the star to school as part of an assignment to share a family Christmas tradition, attorneys say. (Courtesy photo)

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.”

Alex Hinden January 19, 2014 at 09:57 PM
Muslims have been praying in schools since 2007 in California. Here is just one example. http://www.utsandiego.com/uniontrib/20070702/news_1n2prayer.html
LBV Collins January 19, 2014 at 10:27 PM
@Alex Hinden: In response to your two comments.... ............ No, AB1266 is not offensive, in my opinion. .............. Christians have been praying in public schools since at least the early sixties. I know this for a fact because that is when I started attending as a first grader... we prayed all the time. (Heck, I remember when we learned that President Kennedy was shot. I suggested to my teacher that we all pray for him. And we did.) So Muslims praying in our schools is no big deal.
John January 21, 2014 at 02:41 AM
"Let's see all of you get this passionate and excited over the hateful bullying going on in these schools! Now that's an area that could actually use your tenacity!!! *my end point-don't be so ridiculous about this-- keep it in perspective." It appears that Christians today are the ones who are being "bullied" by special interest lobbies like the powerful LGBT lobby and atheists. Anti-Christians continue to pummel Christians for their faith. Liberal Bills like ab 1266 will only encourage more bullying in schools.
southernbelle January 21, 2014 at 11:57 AM
@John, Christians can't be surprised by the bullying toward them. After all, there is clear warning it WILL happen. Following is written proof of the warning which came from a man/God named Jesus Christ, who claimed to be Son of the One and Only Holy and Righteous God, written to believers after his death and resurrection, thousands of years ago. My source is the translation of ancient Messianic and Greek texts which is now referred to as the Holy Bible. (in case anyone needs my source, or evidence it was prophesied) This was the written warning: John 15:20 tells what Jesus was saying to His disciples... "Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you." There are several other documented warnings of persecution in this ancient text. So although Christians tend to be offended by the unjust bullying and discriminating treatment, as is human nature, they must all remember that to walk in the God's footsteps they vow to follow, they must endure the same type of hatred, discrimination, persecution, and possibly death- that He did. If even He was hated, why wouldn't all Christians be.
kenbob January 21, 2014 at 01:42 PM
southernbelle, you make it sound as if no one should complain about bullying Christians. Is that your intention? I think it would be best to work to stamp out bullying no matter who is the victim, don't you?
LBV Collins January 21, 2014 at 02:03 PM
Oh good grief! Will you two STOP IT!! You're not bullied nor are you persecuted. .......................... @John; @southernbelle: You want to see REAL Christian persecution? Then watch this 60 minutes report on Christians in Egypt: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/persecution-of-egypts-coptic-christians The Coptic Christians supported the military coup that ousted then-incumbent president Mohamed Morsi. The Coptics were then attacked, some hacked and beaten to death, and their homes, stores and churches ransacked and burned to the ground. THAT'S bullying. THAT'S persecution. .......................... Christians make up less than 10 percent of the population in Egypt. When they complain about being bullied and persecuted for their faith, they have history and recent events to support their claims. In contrast, Christians comprise nearly 80 percent of the population in the United States. (While those much feared atheists account for less that 2 percent.) http://religions.pewforum.org/reports Christians in the United States are free to express their faith. Their rights are protected by our Constitution. (Yes, that means Obama's Federal Government is protecting your right to worship Christ.) .......................... When LGBTs ask for equal protection under our Constitution, they are NOT bullying you. They are NOT persecuting you. They are asking to be treated the SAME as you. You may not like LGBTs. You may think that gay marriage is an abomination. You may have concluded that God hates gays. That's your religious right. But you cross the line when you decide to pass state and federal laws that impose your particular interpretation of the Bible on others. .......................... @John: I'm not sure I understand your point that "...ab 1266 will only encourage more bullying in schools." Are you suggesting that LGBT children will be bullied by other kids, or that somehow Christian kids will be bullied by LGBTs?
southernbelle January 21, 2014 at 02:35 PM
@kenbob-nope. My intention is exactly as I wrote- that Christians should expect it and not be shocked when it happens. @LBV--hehehe, you are a tad uptight there. Take a deep breath and stop dramatizing and reading into what I wrote. I am not comparing this or ANY situation whatsoever, to persecution or bullying. You missed my entire point by inferring and twisting what I was saying. ps--I didn't read past your first 2 sentences, I knew I wouldn't be interested in the rest of your irrelevant comment since it clearly wouldn't relate to my post. May I suggest you slow down and not be so quick to jump to improper conclusions, with your dukes up, when people who you THINK are opposing you are speaking. It's wise counsel to heed. :o)
LBV Collins January 21, 2014 at 02:46 PM
@southernbelle: Humph... You claim I'm "a tad uptight" and that I "missed " your entire point. Yet, you claim to have only read the first two sentences of my post. So who is it that is being "so quick to jump to improper conclusions"? .......................... Nonetheless, if I misinterpreted your point and my response was inappropriate, then I apologize.
southernbelle January 21, 2014 at 04:33 PM
@LBV um…I didn't have to read past : "Oh good grief! Will you two STOP IT!! You're not bullied nor are you persecuted. .......................... @John; @southernbelle: You want to see REAL Christian persecution? Then watch this 60 minutes report on Christians in Egypt: " that was enough evidence that you wrongly inferred what you thought I was saying…I didn't need to read onward. just saying'. Apology accepted.
LBV Collins January 21, 2014 at 06:49 PM
Thank you for accepting my apology, southernbelle! Best wishes to you and yours...
preston beach January 22, 2014 at 12:14 PM
I am a teacher at Great Oak High School...I find that the majority of my students are from a Christian background. I recently actually had to advocate for a female student who is an atheist, and felt her views were misunderstood and disrespected by our student body. We had a class discussion on this, and talked about the need and right for everyone to speak their views freely in an appropriate forum...we discussed how to apply the rhetorical strategies learned in class to testing the expressed views and opinions of others, especially in public speaking platforms. Finally, we examined the need for an agreed upon moral/ethical code of conduct upon which any organization must rely in order for individual rights to be guaranteed and for that organization to flourish from divergent ideas. If there is anything our country needs that is grossly lacking, it is true tolerance, patience, and authentic desire to understand others' points of view. When the dialogue breaks down into vitriol, learning is suppressed, and fear, not tolerance, gains the day. My students know that I'm Christian, and they also know that, while I'm not going to pressure them with my personal beliefs, I'm also not going to pretend that I don't have any when questioned or challenged. The framers of the Constitution wanted freedom of religion, not freedom from it. I am appalled at what political correctness has done to us; we have become a paranoid and polarized people-foreign terrorism pales in comparison to what we are doing and becoming to each other. This does not have to be an either/or issue. Without tolerance, we don't (excuse the pun) have a prayer.
LBV Collins January 22, 2014 at 12:22 PM
@preston beach: Well stated.
John January 22, 2014 at 01:09 PM
"I still stand by my original statement: 'Please practice your religion to your heart's content at home or in church or in Sunday school. Not in our public schools.' LBV Collins. The problem with this viewpoint, in my opinion, is that our Constitution expressly grants Christians (and other religious sects), the right to practice their religion anywhere they go, including schools Citizens must speak out when our political leaders fail to do so. Based on the number of comments, many readers are doing just that. The next step is to take actions that support those individual freedoms or soon they will be taken away for good. One such action is to remove those politicians who are currently entrenched in Sacramento and Washington D.C. Those politicians (and liberal judges) continue to diminish an individual's religious freedoms.
ChrisG January 22, 2014 at 02:52 PM
@preston, thank you.
preston beach January 22, 2014 at 03:37 PM
@ John...I practice my religion daily at work. Christianity teaches self-control, loving others, living humbly and honestly, accepting and extending grace. No one has ever complained when I have done this! In the words of the apostle John, ""let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth." I would gladly trade my best verbal arguments for a life consistent in all my actions with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Occasionally, someone will ask why I'm different. Then, I use words...
LBV Collins January 22, 2014 at 04:07 PM
@John: I believe I understand your point, "...that our Constitution expressly grants Christians (and other religious sects), the right to practice their religion anywhere they go." My point is that while a parent may love the idea of their child preaching their particular religious views to other kids, other parents may find it objectionable. So where do we draw the line between one child's right to proselytize and another child's right not to be exposed to it? If it is deemed "okay" for kids to recite their religious training in front of a captive class, then that opens the door for ALL "other religious sects" to do the same. I just think proponents of this little girl's free speech right haven't thought this all the way through to its potential impact. This is why I STILL stand by my original statement: "Please practice your religion to your heart's content at home or in church or in Sunday school. Not in our public schools." ............................. Also, I disagree that liberal's are trying to diminish our religious freedoms. It's my observation that they are trying to ensure fairness among all religious and non-religious people. ............... BTW: Though I'm very concerned that granting children the "free speech right" to express their religious beliefs to other students in an assignment like this can subject students to something they (or their parents) don't want them to hear, I have no objection for schoolmates to chat about their religious upbringing with one another during lunch. But I think it's something completely different when the entire class is forced to sit and listen to proselytizing during an assignment.
preston beach January 22, 2014 at 10:05 PM
An ironic note: Helen Hunt Jackson, the woman the school is named after, is the daughter of a minister, attended female seminary herself, and was a practicing Unitarian. Her compassion towards the native Americans in the Southern California area was indeed driven by her faith and religion. Situational irony. Long live her memory!
ChrisG January 22, 2014 at 10:39 PM
@preston, lmao. That is hilarious! Thanks
kenbob January 24, 2014 at 01:48 AM
ChrisG, interesting to say the least, but hilarious? Southernbelle, I stand corrected. LBV Collins, I would certainly agree with you if the case in point was an age-inappropriate display. But I still agree with her right to present her assignment whether she read from the Koran, the Satanic Bible, The Sayings of Confucius, The Secular Humanist Manifesto, or any other document, as long as it pertained to her family's holiday tradition. You seem to be fearful of religious beliefs being shared in an organized classroom. Why is that? I'm not asking so that I can run you down, nor do I want a long diatribe. I am simply trying to understand your reasons why all religious talk should be removed from the classroom.
John January 24, 2014 at 04:35 AM
For those seeking accurate information about the rights of students to speak freely in class, please refer to what the U.S. Department of Education says about public school students' religious liberties. This may even surprise Southernbelle. www.ed.gov
John January 24, 2014 at 04:42 AM
For specific student religious rights, check out this website: http://www.gtbe.org/news/index.php/56.html
LBV Collins January 24, 2014 at 08:25 AM
@kenbob: " I am simply trying to understand your reasons why all religious talk should be removed from the classroom." / A very fair question, kenbob. / My reasoning is based solely on the age of the children. I think six year olds are too young to be exposed to religious views other than what their parents are teaching them. If this story were about teenagers in high school, I would likely have the opposite view and support open discussion of various religions. In the big picture, I prefer exposing children to the cultural diversity of the human experience in an open, supportive environment. I just think any given subject needs to be presented at an appropriate age.
southernbelle January 24, 2014 at 11:55 AM
@John--thank you for posting. I wasn't interested in going that deep as my fight is for the child and her right to share her tradition as she was asked to do, that protestors should've at least heard both sides of the story before staging a call out especially since it was in front of children, that the parents were owed respect from the Principal and teacher in a thorough explanation as soon as this event happened, that we all, as an entire society need to ALL (both sides) stop allowing ourselves to be offended by everything that disagrees with us, our view, our beliefs, our lifestyles, our preferences, our styles, our living standards, on and on, and MOST importantly, stop pointing out every little offense in front of our children and teaching them to hate! Love covers a multitude of wrong doings-- we will all be wronged but if we look for these wrongs, we'll certainly, self-righteously, find them. Let's keep things in perspective. People here are acting crazy over a small child sharing a ONE MINUTE share as though their kids will be indoctrinated and converted for life. it's silliness. Anyway, I did go to the site you offered and this is what meant the most "to me." … "Although the Constitution forbids public school officials from directing or favoring prayer, students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," [ 9 ] and the Supreme Court has made clear that "private religious speech, far from being a First Amendment orphan, is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression." [ 10 ] Moreover, not all religious speech that takes place in the public schools or at school-sponsored events is governmental speech. [ 11 ] For example, "nothing in the Constitution ... prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day," [ 12 ] and students may pray with fellow students during the school day on the same terms and conditions that they may engage in other conversation or speech. Likewise, local school authorities possess substantial discretion to impose rules of order and pedagogical restrictions on student activities, [ 13 ] but they may not structure or administer such rules to discriminate against student prayer or religious speech. For instance, where schools permit student expression on the basis of genuinely neutral criteria and students retain primary control over the content of their expression, the speech of students who choose to express themselves through religious means such as prayer is not attributable to the state and therefore may not be restricted because of its religious content. [ 14 ] Student remarks are not attributable to the state simply because they are delivered in a public setting or to a public audience. [ 15 ] As the Supreme Court has explained: "The proposition that schools do not endorse everything they fail to censor is not complicated," [ 16 ] and the Constitution mandates neutrality rather than hostility toward privately initiated religious expression. [ 17 ]" the end. :o)
John January 24, 2014 at 01:13 PM
Thank you SouthernBelle for expressing the position of the U.S. Dept. of Education regarding the rights of students to express their religious beliefs in schools. In all her innocence, young Brynn is a shining example for all Americans who may have forgotten their 1st Amendment rights. I encourage every reader to enroll in a U.S. Constitution class. One is taught on Thursday nights at 6:30 pm at the Faith Armory on Winchester Road in Temecula.
kenbob January 24, 2014 at 11:04 PM
LBV Collins, thank you for the clarification. Out of all of your comments about leaving religion out of school, this is the first time you have restricted it to age. Has your opinion adjusted some as a result of this 'conversation'?
That Temecula Guy January 25, 2014 at 04:38 AM
Communist agendas. Research "Humanist Manifesto," "John Dewey," the NEA, the origin of the term "Social Studies" in school as a subject, and then see how this all applies. Remove religion, remove the self, and it is a lot easier to mold minds. Anyone that subscribes to the notion that religion should be scrubbed from our public schools has already been conformed to the vision of the socialist movement. It started a long time ago. California is the perfect breeding ground for it.
LBV Collins January 25, 2014 at 08:04 AM
@kenbob "Has your opinion adjusted some as a result of this 'conversation'?" / Nope. The age of the children has always been one of the key factors for my argument against sharing religious teachings in school. (Though I may not have emphasized that point well enough.) / I also want to point out that school faculty need to steer clear of endorsing any particular religious view no matter the age of the child... period.
LBV Collins January 25, 2014 at 08:11 AM
@That Temecula Guy: "Remove religion, remove the self, and it is a lot easier to mold minds." / Sorry, but that makes no sense. Isn't the intent of religion to mold the mind in the first place? If so, what's the difference between a religion molding a person's mind versus a public school? And if your response is that public schools are pushing a "socialist movement," well, isn't that what Jesus was all about? (Christ doesn't strike me as a capitalist.)
Jerry Simeon January 25, 2014 at 10:53 AM
Yep, let's suppress one "free" philosophy and replace it with a more restricted or perverted political or religious point of view. Our schools are in the business of "cookie cutter" indoctrination, instead of education and "free" thought and decision making? Then, we wonder we our system is lacking and our children suffer... And who should we put in charge of all Thought, Philosophy, Art, Religion, Politics and other subjective teaching? Who should be in charge of all Sciences, Medicine and engineering? One of the people commenting here? ...What happened to the basic three elements of education... Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmatic?
southernbelle January 25, 2014 at 01:29 PM
@jerry, not sure we agree or not on things, but I enjoyed your post, hehehe. Having kids currently in school, being very active and present in their schools, as well as knowledge and experience with homeschooling, the cookie cutter schematic is sickening. In fact, it is the main reason I beg my kids to homeschool every summer--if it were;t for the social aspect that a few of them thrive on, I'd enforce it. One child is in an AP class in high school. It is nothing but GRUELING trying to encourage and motivate this child through it. What is the child learning--DATES and NAMES. *yawn!!!* no where is there HISTORICAL events padded in stories and adventure that makes learning exciting and RICH to the still-sponge like brains of these kids. It's almost criminal! What good are names and dates going to be a year from now? Why aren't our history and science TEXT books married up with Historical Literature that not only teaches, but excites and ignites imagination, interest, and long-term knowledge?!!! Anyway, I'm off topic but I wanted to say my piece regarding the cookie cutter education. It's a cryin' shame! Anyway, looks like this is a 'meet nowhere near the middle" conversation where both sides are passionate about their stance and not willing to budge. So let's reel it back to the beginning one more time…we're talking about a 6 yr old child who was not teaching anything but rather SHARING about a family tradition, an assignment she was asked to do. I reject the idea that she could pollute or "indoctrinate" another child in that little ONE MINUTE share. Sounds to me like she was saying WHAt her tradition is, and WHY (hence the bible verse???). And gosh--if one little verse could convert a child in one minute---maybe we all better reevaluate the power of scripture and why??? o-O

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