A first-grade teacher in California told a student that "Jesus is not allowed in school" before removing a religious story the child affixed to candy canes in celebration of Christmas last month, a non-profit legal firm claims.
The incident reportedly unfolded on Dec. 13, when 6-year-old Isaiah Martinez brought gifts for his peers to Merced Elementary School in West Covina, Calif.
According to a press release distributed by Advocates for Faith & Freedom, the firm handling the case, "Each gift consisted of a traditional candy cane with a message attached that recited the legend of the candy cane. The legend references a candy maker who created the candy cane to symbolize the life of Jesus Christ."
And that's where the controversy comes in.
According to the legal group, when Martinez presented the gifts, he was met with major resistance from his teacher, who reportedly took the candy canes and removed the Christian story affixed to them.
"After conferring with the school principal, the teacher told Isaiah that 'Jesus is not allowed in school' and, at the apparent direction of her principal, ripped the candy cane message from each candy cane, threw the messages in the trash, and handed the candy canes back to Isaiah for delivery to his classmates," the press release continued. "Isaiah then nervously handed the candy canes to his classmates in fear that he was in trouble for trying to bring a little Christmas cheer and 'good tidings' to class."
Now, Advocates for Faith & Freedom is demanding an apology from West Covina Unified School District, calling for policies that would restrict "bullying and intimidating Christian students and religiously affiliated students."
The legal firm sent a letter to the district outlining its views on the matter.
"It is in the best interest for everyone if the school sets an example of tolerance of differing viewpoints, whether it be on Christmas, about religious subjects, or about cultural issues, that kids in public schools should have a right to hold differing views," Robert Tyler, an attorney representing Martinez, told the Los Angeles Daily News. "The courts have, multiple times, upheld the rights of students to express themselves to each other."
KNBC-TV reported that district leaders are reviewing the situation, with Superintendent Debra Kaplan explaining in a written statement that officials' intent is to "honor and respect the beliefs of all students in matters of religion."
"At the present time, we do not have any reason to believe that the teacher or any other district employee had any intention other than to maintain an appropriate degree of religious neutrality in the classroom and to communicate this to the child in an age-appropriate manner," Kaplan said.
The school district has until Jan. 13 to respond before legal avenues could be taken.
The incident raises questions about church-state separatism and students' personal rights in the classroom. It is reminiscent of another case in Texas surrounding candy canes in the classroom -- one that has been dancing through the courts for the past decade.
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