Thursday, November 29, 2012

'God' removed from student's poem


A decision to remove the word “God” from a school program is causing a world of controversy for McDowell County Schools.

But a First Amendment expert said school officials made the right decision.

During Monday’s Board of Education meeting, two members of the public stepped forward to talk to board members about a First Amendment issue at West Marion Elementary.

McDowell County Schools employee Chris Greene and McDowell County resident Esther Dollarhyde each took a turn talking about West Marion Elementary’s Veterans Day program during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“On Nov. 8, 2012 West Marion held their annual Veterans Day program in the midst of a lot of drama,” Greene said. “We had one parent concerned with the use of the word God in this program. This parent did not want the word God mentioned anywhere in the program. When the demand from this person was heard, the rights of another stopped. It did so by hushing the voice of a six-year-old girl.”

Greene said the student had written a special poem for the program about her grandfathers, both of whom had served in the armed forces during the Vietnam War.

In it, she wrote, “he prayed to God for peace, he prayed to God for strength,” which Greene stated she was told she could not read during the school assembly.

“She was told that she was not allowed to say the word God during this program” stated Greene. “Being a six year old, and not knowing her rights, she did what she was told.”

Greene said the girl wasn’t trying to force people to pray, but was just telling them what her grandfather had done.

“Let me add here that those prayers worked, because he went on to serve two tours in Vietnam,” Greene said. “My question is this, when do the rights of one outweigh the rights of another? I believe that this little girl’s rights were violated and that those who worked so hard to prepare this program should receive an apology.”

Esther Dollarhyde agreed.

“We need to keep in mind what was our country founded on,” stated Dollarhyde. “It was founded on God and Jesus Christ, and our veterans went out and fought for us so we would have a free country, but if we aren’t allowed to honor them the way that the children want to then America is getting lost.”

When contacted after the presentations, School Board member Lynn Greene, who is also Chris Greene’s father, said school officials had overstepped their authority.

“My understanding on the law is a teacher cannot promote any certain religion, but when it comes to students voicing their opinion or expressing themselves in a poem we pretty much have to give some leeway,” Greene said. “To me this whole thing is a violation of that child’s rights. Nobody forced her to write the poem, that was her part of the program. She was asked to write a poem about veterans and she did. My personal opinion is that her rights were violated.”

School Board member Terry Frank said he could not comment until he knew more about the situation.
When asked why the decision was made to remove the word God, Superintendent Gerri Martin said it came about after a serious discussion with West Marion’s Principal Desarae Kirkpatrick and Vice Principal Nakia Carson.

“The discussion (about the poem) occurred between myself, the principal and the assistant principal at West Marion,” stated Martin. “We wanted to make sure we were upholding the school district’s responsibility of separation of church and state from the Establishment Clause.”

When asked why other schools were allowed to hold programs containing poems and student writings with the word God in them, Martin said that was because West Marion was the only one who had asked for consultation about their program.

Kirkpatrick, like Martin, said the decision was based on a public school’s necessity to not infringe upon other students’ freedom of religion.

“After consulting with the Superintendent, Dr. Martin, we jointly decided that we must err on the side of caution to prevent from crossing the line on the Establishment Clause of the Constitution,” stated Kirkpatrick. “As a principal of a public school, I must put aside my personal religious beliefs and follow the law, which upholds that we have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but that we, as public schools, cannot endorse one single religion over another.”

The McDowell News contacted the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., which serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, and the rights to assemble and to petition the government.

After studying the situation, President and Chief Executive Officer Ken Paulson stated the school did in fact have the right to remove the word God from the child’s poem.

“Courts have consistently held up the rights for students to express themselves unless their speech is disruptive to the school,” stated Paulson. “When the little girl wrote the poem and included a reference to God she had every right to do that. The First Amendment protects all Americans. She had every right to mention God, (but) that dynamic changed when they asked her to read it at an assembly.”
Paulson stated that because students were a captive audience, which means they didn’t have another place to go if they didn’t want to attend the assembly, that administrators had the right to remove the word God.

“Courts have found that religious references at school-sponsored events generally run afoul of the First Amendment,” said Paulson, adding that if kids had randomly been asked what they thought of veterans, the little girl could have shared her poem, because it wasn’t planned. “When a public school knows there’s going to be a reference to religion then there is a problem and they have to address it. The reason for these restrictions is to prevent the government from endorsing a specific faith or religion. So public schools have to steer clear of religious references.”

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