A California school district that dispatched a sheriff’s deputy to a first-grade student’s home to stop him from sharing Bible verses with classmates because they could be “offended” abruptly has reversed course.
In a letter to the student’s legal representatives, the Palmdale, California, School District affirmed the student, identified by the initial “C,” may “freely discuss his religious beliefs on the Desert Rose campus during non-instructional time,” may distribute written material to anyone on any sidewalk near the school gate, his parents may continue sending him daily notes and verses, he may read and discuss his note with his peers “during non-instructional time” and he may invite peers to join him on the sidewalk after school to talk about the notes.
WND reported in June the school dispatched a sheriff’s deputy to the student’s home regarding notes the student’s mother, Christina Zavala, regularly tucked into his lunch that contain Bible verses.
According to Liberty Counsel, which represented the student and his family, the boy showed the notes to his friends during lunch time at school.
Soon, a number of students at the school were asking for copies of the notes, which included short stories from the Bible, Liberty Counsel said.
“However, when one little girl said ‘teacher – this is the most beautiful story I’ve ever seen,’ ‘separation of church and state’ was the response, and the notes were banned from lunchtime distribution. C was told that the school gate was the only location at which he could give the Bible verses to his friends, and only after the bell rang,” the organization explained.
Nevertheless, C twice was reprimanded by his teacher in front of the whole class and told to stop talking about religion and sharing his mother’s notes, and he went home in tears, Liberty Counsel said.
Even as the crowd of students asking for the after-school Bible notes grew, on May 9, Principal Melanie Pagliaro approached the boy and demanded that the notes only be handed out somewhere beyond school property.
Still not satisfied, Liberty Counsel said, “a Los Angeles deputy sheriff knocked at the door of C’s home, demanding that C’s note-sharing cease altogether because ‘someone might be offended.’”
On Monday, Liberty Counsel announced the dispute was resolved, with the school district affirming the student’s basic rights.
“We celebrate this victory that acknowledges that students have constitutional rights to free speech to distribute literature during non-instructional times,” said Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel. “Now this young boy is free to share his Bible verses and stories with his classmates this year without hassle.”
School officials initially had declined to respond to a WND request for comment, but on Monday, Supt. Raul Maldonado replied.
“We were worried ourselves and wanted to get to the bottom of this, and I think it’s been resolved very effectively,” he told WND.
He said the board’s affirmation was based on its concern that students have the right to “express their religious freedom.”
However, when asked about dispatching a deputy to a student’s home, he promised to send a report addressing the question. But the report said only that a “school resource officer” investigated and had a “friendly and brief” conversation with the family.
The report said the school district had its lawyer, Bonifacio Bonny Garcia, investigated and determined school officials “acted with the highest degree of courtesy towards the Zavala family.”
A media spokesman for the sheriff’s office previously told WND he knew nothing about the deputy visiting the 7-year-old’s home at the request of school officials and declined to comment.
But the sequence of events was documented by Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit litigation, education and policy group emphasizing religious liberties.
Its letter to the school addressed the “unconstitutional suppression and censorship of student religious speech.”
The organization said it demanded that Desert Rose “correct an outrageous violation of a first grader’s constitutional rights.”
“This is a clear, gross violation of the rights of a child. That the school district enlisted a police officer to intimidate C and his family makes this case even more outrageous,” Liberty Counsel contended.
“I would expect something like this to happen in Communist Romania, where I went to elementary school, but cops don’t bully 7-year-olds who want to talk about Jesus in the Land of the Free,” said Horatio “Harry” Mihet, vice president of legal affairs and chief litigation counsel of Liberty Counsel.
Liberty Counsel pointed out students regularly exchange items such as Christmas cards and birthday party invitations.
“Therefore, it was improper to ban student religious discussion during lunch time. The district cannot suppress and censor this discussion, or the one-page notes consisting of Bible stories and verses placed by C’s mother in C’s lunch for his own personal enjoyment and edification; which he voluntarily chose to share with his little friends during non-instructional time; which interested classmates were free to accept or refuse, at their own discretion,” the letter said.
“If being censured for religious expression by one’s first grade teacher in front of one’s classmates is not intimidating and humiliating enough, the message of hostility to a child’s religious expression is underscored by the district calling law enforcement for a ‘follow-up visit’ to his house,” it said.