About a year ago, 6-year-old Isaiah Martinez (below) went to Merced Elementary School in West Covina, California with a pack of candy canes in hand to give to his classmates. Each candy cane had attached to it a religious message that told the “legend of the candy cane” which, believe it or not, has everything to do with Jesus dying on a cross. (He’s wrong about that, by the way.)
His teacher, not wanting to get in trouble, removed the messages from the candy canes, then handed them back to Isaiah to give to his friends, apparently telling him “Jesus is not allowed in school.”
He “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,” said his lawyer, Robert Tyler, an attorney for the Advocates for Faith & Freedom, which works to preserve religious liberty in the legal system.
Tyler sent a letter to the West Covina Unified School District demanding a written apology and the implementation of a new policy to prohibit school officials from “bullying and intimidating” Christian students and religiously affiliated students, he said.
What the lawsuit failed to recognize was the school was trying to do the right thing, not persecute Christians. Letting a student proselytize to fellow classmates worried administrators so they tried to put a stop to it. Was it the wrong move? Yes, I believe it was, but intention counts for something.
“The district’s overriding concern was and is to honor and respect the beliefs of all students in matters of religion,” Debra Kaplan, the superintendent of the West Covina Unified School District, wrote in a statement. “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.”
When I posted this last year, I was on Isaiah’s side. He’s a student and he’s allowed to proselytize if he wants (as long as it’s not disrupting the class). Considering that students were allowed to bring in gifts without prior restrictions, it seemed weird to tell him he couldn’t hand out a Christian message in the process. It’d be a different story if we were talking about a teacher doing this.
This year, the Christian Right isn’t waiting for Isaiah to get in trouble. Advocates for Faith & Freedom has already filed a preliminary injunction in court to make sure the child can proselytize in the classroom:
Robert Tyler, lawyer and General Counsel, explained their decision to file a federal law suit saying, “the school has neglected to correct its actions, and after exhausting all options to avoid a lawsuit we were left with no choice but to file a complaint in federal court. We are asking the court to protect Isaiah’s rights and the rights of others like him from having their religious speech censored. Students do not shed their First Amendment rights just because they enter into a classroom.”
So far, the district hasn’t responded.
I still say this whole charade would come to a halt if the child of an atheist parent wanted to hand out candy canes with messages saying “God doesn’t exist.”
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)