Are public school teachers allowed to have personal Bibles on their desks? That's the question at the center of a contentious First Amendment battle brewing between an atheist activist group and a conservative legal firm.
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It all started after a teacher in the Peoria Unified School District in Glendale, Arizona, was reportedly told to remove a Bible and religious symbols from her classroom following a letter of complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a secular activist group.
The organization has sent two grievance letters to the district over the past year. In one of them, a first-grade teacher in the district was accused of having a plaque on the wall that read, "Jesus Loves the Little Children."
The other letter — sent last December — alleged that Bibles were on a classroom bookshelf and that there were other faith-based symbols in the room, according to the Arizona Republic.
In the latter example, an administrator reportedly responded to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and said that the items would be removed.
In a May 2014 bulletin, the atheist group noted the following about the school's response: "Oakwood Elementary School in Peoria, Ariz., will no longer allow religious icons, bibles and proselytizing 'gifts.'"
Expanding on the complaint, the organization said that a kindergarten teacher there had been decorating her classroom with Bible verses and Christian symbols and had given "inappropriate religious gifts" to pupils.
Now the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal firm, is stepping in to defend the presence of Bibles in the classroom, calling on the Peoria Unified School District to "respect the constitutionally protected freedom of school employees to have personal Bibles in their private desk areas."
While the group isn't tackling the presence of Bibles on bookshelves or in other locations inside the classroom, it is defending educators' rights to have a personal Bible on their desks.
According to Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys, officials at some of the district's schools told teachers to remove Bibles and scripture references from their desks after the aforementioned complaints from the Freedom From Religion Foundation — a purported act that the group says impedes staffers' First Amendment rights.
The legal firm argues that there's no reason why a school district should disallow teachers from having Bibles on their desks for personal use.
"Teachers and other public school employees do not leave their constitutionally protected freedoms at the schoolhouse gate," said Rory Gray, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom. "This overreaction on the part of some school officials has now itself become a First Amendment violation."
The conservative group, which sent a letter to the Peoria Unified School District last week detailing its stance, said that teachers' desks generally contain numerous personal items — photos of children and other related items.
A Bible, in this case, would not be seen as a book being endorsed by the district and would, instead, be viewed as a personal item, the Alliance Defending Freedom claims.
But Andrew Seidel, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told the Arizona Republic that while it is permissible for teaches to have Bibles in their desks for personal use, the books can't, in his view, be prominently displayed.
"The line can be hard to draw sometimes," he said. "The courts have been pretty clear that teachers don't have First Amendment rights when they're acting as teachers."
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(H/T: Arizona Republic)
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