Here’s how to read any article by the perennially “persecuted” FOX News contributor Todd Starnes: You assume it’s a lie… then you work backwards to figure out what the real story is.
It works like this: Starnes says two elderly women at the Kalkaska Senior Living Center were reading stories to a group of preschoolers (who are part of the same company’s Child Development Center) when they were stopped.
One of them, Wilma Wells, was reading a book about Christmas traditions, but when she spoke to the kids about the true meaning of Christmas, she was cut off. The other woman, Joan Wilson, was reading “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and when she started explaining the part where Linus recites a Bible passage, she was also cut off.
Now the conservative legal group First Liberty says the teacher infringed upon the First Amendment rights of those women.
First Liberty alleges the teacher, who is a government employee, broke the law by censoring or banning certain speakers or speech because of its religious content. It’s called viewpoint discrimination.
[Said attorney Keisha Russell:] “Here, the teacher allowed those who spoke about Christmas in secular terms to speak unimpeded but abridged the speech of those who spoke to the historical significance of Christmas’ origins.”
The headline for Starnes’ story is “Elderly Women Barred From Reading Christmas Stories to Children.” The FOX News version of his story is titled, “Elderly woman barred from reading ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ to children.”
Both of those headlines are false.
The reasons are right there in the story — and elaborated upon in First Liberty’s letter. In short, the women were allowed to read their stories. It was only when they started ad-libbing that the problems began:
Wilma Wells… read a book about Christmas traditions, and after reading the book, asked the children if they knew why we celebrate Christmas. At that point, an unidentified teacher accompanying the students interjected, stating “We won’t go there, Wilma.”
What was she going to do besides talk about Jesus? The teacher was right to prevent her from preaching to the captive audience.
What about Wilson? She was going off-script, too.
At one point in the well-known and much-beloved story, Linus gives a historical account of the Christmas story. When Joan tried to summarize that part of the story, the teacher abruptly interrupted Joan, cancelled the visitation, and escorted the children out before Joan could finish.
So she wasn’t reading the story. She was paraphrasing a section where Linus quotes the Bible, and First Liberty never tells us what she was saying that caused the teacher to interrupt her.
There’s no indication anywhere that they were prevented from reading their books. The interruptions occurred, apparently, because they were using the opportunity to preach to kids and the teacher knew that was a problem.
And then just to prove how little this has to do with Christian Persecution, check out how First Liberty defends what the women did:
… it should be noted that although Christmas may be a religious holiday for many, it is also the commemoration of a recorded historical event, celebrated even by non-Christians. And our federal government also observes Christmas as a federal holiday.
… there is simply no reasonable basis for a CDCP teacher, or any government employee, to censor and ban the mere discussion of a recorded historical event that is observed by our government.
Got that, atheists? Everyone, even non-Christians, celebrates the birth of Jesus. It’s a historical fact. Just like the talking snake and the virgin birth and Jesus coming back to life after three days. Facts.
First Liberty isn’t helping their case by pretending Christian mythology is secular history. These elderly women crossed the line and a teacher asked them to stop. There’s no need for the teacher to apologize, and there’s no reason for the health center to provide “written assurance” that this will never happen again. There sure as hell isn’t a legal case here, despite the threats from the group.
***Update***: I asked the Freedom From Religion Foundation is there was any reason to take First Liberty’s threat serious, and attorney Sam Grover was quick to say no.
No constitutional right guarantees a captive audience of preschoolers, delivered to you by government employees. To the extent that First Liberty says otherwise, it’s wrong on the law. While it is unfortunate that the expectations for this reading either weren’t communicated to the storytellers or that the storytellers chose not to heed the preschool’s instructions, there is absolutely no legal recourse here. The preschool has an obligation to ensure that its students aren’t preached at, in story form or otherwise, while on field trips.
First Liberty’s legal analysis is limited to one very general quote from Pinette, a case about the KKK placing a cross in the statehouse plaza in Ohio, and a picture of a stamp. The reality is that the law is clear: “The government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, but under the First Amendment it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting people praise God for the birth of Jesus.” Allegheny, 492 U.S. at 601. The preschool has an absolute right and duty to dictate what lessons are taught to its students and government-sponsored education cannot include religious promotion. Instead of threatening preschools with lawsuits and making outrageous legal claims, First Liberty should learn from its recently failed lawsuit in Cambridge Christian School v. Florida High School Athletic Association, where it made a similar legal argument that Christians had a legal right to use the government as a sounding board for proselytizing students. 16-cv-2753, 2017 WL 2458314 (M.D. Fla. June 7, 2017).
If the teachers’ actions caused some hurt feelings, then maybe the preschool should apologize for that. But the preschool did not violate anyone’s constitutional rights; it protected the right of the preschoolers to an education free from religious endorsements. First Liberty’s threat to sue the preschool is abhorrent.
***Update 2***: Here is the letter FFRF sent to the preschool in question commending them for how the teacher handled the situation.
(Image via First Liberty. Thanks to Sean and Brian for the link)