Share this article

print logo

A teachable moment Syracuse fights an already-settled spat over religious expression in schools

People whose job it is to explain increasingly complicated concepts to young children might, indeed, have a little difficulty getting the idea of individual free speech across to a third-grader. It shouldn't have been so difficult for the third-grader to explain it to the school board.

Yet then-little Michaela Bloodgood had to drag the Liverpool School District in suburban Syracuse through a two-year federal court battle in order to get it across to the grown-ups that individual religious expression in schools, as opposed to school-sponsored preaching, is clearly allowed.

For the Liverpool schools to assume that the "Jesus made me stronger" religious musings of a third-grader, distributed to a few friends on the Nate Perry Elementary School playground, would be widely seen as an official school endorsement of an individual's faith betrayed a stunning lack of, well, faith in their community's ability to understand, and the district's ability to explain, the clear law of the land.

Wouldn't that have been a teachable moment?

A simple Google search by school district officials would have discovered many copies of generally accepted policies adopted by everyone from the U.S. Department of Education to the American Civil Liberties Union, from the Freedom Forum to major Christian, Islamic and Jewish religious groups. That would have been much less adversarial, and a lot cheaper, than the court battle that Michaela, now a home-schooled sixth-grader, just has won.

These policies make it clear that, while the school administration and faculty are not to endorse or degrade any religious belief, neither are they to stand in the way of individual religious expression whenever it does not detract from class time or disrupt the educational environment. In Michaela's case, U.S. District Court Judge Norman Mordue ruled that the school's policy amounted to a violation of the girl's constitutional rights.

Students may write term papers about Moses as easily as they write them about Lincoln. They may gather for before- or after-school religious groups as well as for the chess club or to organize fundraisers. They may wear T-shirts that feature Jesus as easily as those that worship LeBron James.

It is conceivable, as the district argued, that some young students might be made to feel uncomfortable upon exposure to an unfamiliar idea. But easing that discomfort, promoting the concept that even young minds do not have to think alike, is part of this, or any, school district's job. If educators don't feel up to it, they shouldn't hide behind a warped interpretation of the law. They should find another line of work.

There are no comments - be the first to comment