My kindergarten teacher Ms. Valentino had certain non-sectarian pedagogical goals: She wanted us to learn to share, to respect our teachers, to obey our parents and to recognize letters, shapes and sounds. I think she did a fine job, and I look back on her small classroom in the annex of P.S. 42 quite fondly.
I especially loved show and tell. Once I brought in my teddy bear, and the next time my hamsters (a terrible experience it was when Mars got loose and was eaten by Mark Spindler's pet snake!).
I also brought in my favorite book to read to the class. I chose The Little Engine that Could.
Pennsylvania kindergartner Wesley Busch and his mom Donna K. Busch chose differently. They brought in the Bible, and Mrs. Busch announced plans to read from the Book of Psalms.
The kindergarten teacher said no. Reading scripture to a diverse class of public school kindergartners, she said, might violate the separation of church and state.
The conflict wound up in federal court, and this week the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school district.
Chief Judge Anthony J. Scirica said, "Parents of public school kindergarten students may reasonably expect their children will not become captive audiences to an adult's reading of religious texts."
"The law is clear," said AU's attorneys, "that in the context of a classroom program -- particularly one conducted for kindergarten-age children who may lack the ability to readily distinguish between private and school-sponsored speech -- a school has wide discretion to control the content of classroom presentations to ensure that they are consistent with the school's legitimate pedagogical goals."
The appeals court got this one right. The Constitution guarantees to all citizens, regardless of age, freedom from government-sponsored religious coercion. A long line of court rulings expressly forbid public schools to pressure children to participate in religious activity.
Yes, Donna Busch addressed the class parent, rather than a school employee. However, when a parent is standing in front of the classroom in place of the teacher, presenting as the teacher otherwise would, younger children perceive any statement offered as school-endorsed speech.
Americans United applauds the decision of the 3rd Circuit Court to afford the kindergarten students of Marple Newtown School District this extra protection in the face of religious coercion.
Now, can the rest of the country board this train of religious liberty?
I think it can, I think it can...