Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

By Christine Emerson
Observer Staff Writer 

School Apologizes for Calling Sheriff to Censor 7-Year-Old From Handing Out Bible Verses

After sharing notes with friends at Palmdale's Desert Rose School, he received requests from some of them for their own bible verses

 

August 22, 2016

Police Came to Christina Zavala's door: After sharing these notes with his friends at lunch, he received requests from some of them for their own bible verses

A public school in California who'd directed an LA Deputy Sheriff to call on a seven-year-old boy to cease his sharing of religious literature has officially backed down on their restrictive attitude toward the bible.

The Desert Rose Elementary school in Palmdale had wanted the child to stop handing out bible verses and stories at school and even outside the school gate. The deputy told the family that "someone might be offended."

The issue began with the child sharing notes that his mother, Christina Zavala, had packed in his lunch. The notes contained inspirational bible verses. After sharing these notes with his friends at lunch, he received requests from some of them for their own bible verses. His mother complied, providing additional bible verses for her son's friends and included short stories for context.

When one child shared one of these notes with the first-grade teacher, telling her, "this is the most beautiful story I've ever seen," the teacher intervened. After publicly rebuking the Zavala boy, she called Mr. and Mrs. Zavala and, invoking separation of church and state, told them that their son was not allowed to share bible verses on school grounds. The teacher was unimpressed with Mrs. Zavala's correct interpretation of the Establishment Clause and stated that if they wanted to share bible, it would have to be outside the school gates.

According, Mrs. Zavala and her son proceeded to hand out bible verses and stories to her son's friends at the school gate for a brief period after school let out. According to the Zavalas, many children congregated to receive the stories.

On May 9, 2016, when Mr. Jaime Zavala came to pick up his son and distribute bible verses, he was approached by School Principal Melanie Pagliagro. Pagliagro told Mr. Zavala that it was "against school policy" to hand the bible notes out at the school gate and they would have to move onto the sidewalk, which was a "public place." Jaime and his son complied and soon returned home.

It was at 4:30 pm on that day that the LA Deputy Sheriff knocked on their door, telling them the school had called to report that the child and his parents had been sharing papers at school and that this was not permitted.

Mr. and Mrs. Zavala then approached Liberty Counsel, a non-profit litigation, education, and policy organization who specialize, in part, in matters of religious freedom. Liberty Counsel undertakes to educate school districts in correct interpretation of the clause establishing separation of church and state.

Liberty Counsel served the Palmdale School District with a letter informing them that pupils of public schools have the right to exercise freedom of speech, including but not limited to, distribution of printed material. Expression can only be prohibited that is obscene, libelous or slanderous, and constitute a clear and present danger of commission of unlawful acts.

It is not uncommon for schools to misconstrue their duty and, in the process, restrict students' freedom to exercise religion.

In this case, the school district's attorney replied with a letter granting the child the right to discuss his religious views and distribute texts during non-instructional time. Specifically, in the letter, the district's legal counsel concluded that:

1. "Child C" may freely discuss his religious beliefs on the Desert Rose campus during non- instructional time;

Desert Rose Elementary School in Palmdale

2. The Zavalas may distribute written material to anyone on any designated public forum, including the sidewalk a few feet away from the Desert Rose School gate;

3. Mr. and Mrs. Zavala may continue to send a daily note to "C" in his lunchbox;

4. "C" may freely read and discuss his daily note with his peers during non-instructional time;

5. "C' may even verbally invite any of his peers to join him on the sidewalk after school for further discussion on the contents of the notes.

"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 and Chairman of Liberty Counsel.

 

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