Kindergarteners Are Not ‘Captive Audience,’ Says Court

Public schools can restrict the reading of religious texts to students in elementary schools, a federal appeals court ruled.

In a 2-1 decision June 1, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Pennsylvania kindergarten teacher had a constitutional right to refuse to let a parent read scripture to children in her classroom.

“[P]arents of public school kindergarten students,” wrote Judge Anthony J. Scirica, “may reasonably expect their children will not become captive audiences to an adult’s reading of religious texts.”

As part of an assignment at Culbertson Elementary School in suburban Philadelphia, parents were invited to read a passage from their child’s favorite book.

Kindergartener Wesley Busch’s mother, Donna, wanted to read from the Bible, but school officials prohibited the selection. Donna Busch sought the help of the Rutherford Institute and sued the school district for allegedly violating her First Amendment rights.

Judge Scirica said in Busch v. Marple Newtown School District that there is a “tension” between the rights of individuals to practice their religion and the duty of the school to avoid entanglement with religion, but the courts must side with the school officials.

Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case and supports the appellate court’s decision.

“Through cases like this one, the Religious Right wants to use the constitutional right of free speech as a sword to bring religion back into the schools and back into the classrooms,” AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser told a local newspaper.

“[The 3rd Circuit] wisely recognized that young children are especially vulnerable to religious proselytization,” he continued, “and that once a parent is brought into the classroom, the school has the same right to control their speech as they do the teacher’s.”