News

3 REASONS FOR VICTORY! School Apologizes for Violating Sixth-Grader’s Religious Liberty Rights

Share:
May 29, 2015

First Liberty Institute thanks Somerset Academy for upholding the constitutional right of students to express their faith in class assignments

 

In its apology letter, Somerset Academy states it will allow 12-year-old

Mackenzie Fraiser to resubmit her original presentation, inclusive of her religious beliefs.

 

Last week, Somerset Academy officials issued a written apology for denying 12-year-old Mackenzie Fraiser the right to include a Bible verse in a homework assignment. Somerset Academy, a public charter school in Las Vegas, Nevada, agreed to allow Mackenzie to resubmit her assignment with her religious beliefs included.

The school’s apology came two days after First Liberty Institute sent Somerset Academy a demand letter seeking the restoration of Mackenzie’s free speech and religious liberty rights. The Somerset Academy’s apology letter states:

“After reviewing the facts of this particular situation, Somerset Academy recognizes that the teacher and assistant principal incorrectly implemented [U.S. Department of Education] guidelines. Expression of a student’s religious beliefs in the form of homework, artwork, and other written or oral assignments is protected speech and should have been allowed in this instance.

“Somerset Academy of Las Vegas and its Administrators apologize for this inadvertent error. The student will be allowed to re-submit her original presentation, inclusive of her religious beliefs.”

“We are thankful that Somerset Academy school officials did the right thing by upholding Mackenzie’s right to express her religious beliefs in class assignments,” said Jeremy Dys, First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel. “As the school officials correctly noted, U.S. Department of Education guidelines guarantee that students are free to express their religious beliefs in their schoolwork. We are grateful for the Academy’s quick response and commitment to safeguarding their students’ freedom of religious expression at school.”

CENSORING FAITH FROM SCHOOL ASSIGNMENTS

In February, Mackenzie, a sixth grader, was assigned a project to compose a PowerPoint presentation called “All About Me” that was to include a slide with an “inspirational saying” important to her identity. Mackenzie’s Christian faith is a central aspect of her identity. So she wanted to use a Bible verse—John 3:16—as her “inspirational saying.” However, the teacher told the class that they could not use “Bible verses or quotations from the Book of Mormon” on the “inspirational sayings” slide.

Two months later, Mackenzie was assigned a project on self-esteem. When Mackenzie’s stepmother suggested she reference how her self esteem derives from being made in the image of God, Mackenzie became nervous and told her parents about how the use of Bible verses had been banned in the “All About Me” presentation. This had led Mackenzie to believe it was wrong, even illegal, to express her faith in school assignments.

Mackenzie’s father, a pastor, emailed school officials to find out why his daughter had not been allowed to include a Bible verse in her assignment. Somerset Academy’s Assistant Principal replied—incorrectly—that the school was following U.S. Department of Education Guidelines.

Mackenzie’s story received national attention when FOX News contributor Todd Starnes reported on the case in his “American Dispatch” column and it was subsequently covered by other national media including the Associated Press, Breitbart, The Blaze, and Fox & Friends.

3 WINNING ARGUMENTS FOR PROTECTING STUDENT RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION

Liberty Institute’s demand letter cited three reasons, summarized below, for why Mackenzie should be allowed to express her faith in her homework assignment:

  • Reason #1: The U.S. Constitution protects private student speech. The freedom of students to freely exercise their religion at school is, the letter stated, a “bedrock constitutional principle.” This principle is supported by several U.S. Supreme Court and federal court decisions, including the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) ruling. Citing court precedent, the letter also pointed out that censoring student religious speech shows government hostility—not neutrality—to religion, therefore violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

  • Reason #2: The U.S. Department of Education Guidelines contradicted the Somerset Academy Assistant Principal. The U.S. Department of Education guidelines explicitly permit student religious expression in class assignments and affirm government neutrality to student religious expression. In addition, Liberty Institute’s letter stated that a student’s speech does not become government speech simply because it is expressed within the classroom. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Department of Education both recognize student assignments as private speech protected from censorship by school officials.

  • Reason #3: Censoring students inhibits protected expression. The suppression of student religious beliefs, including the censorship of religion from classroom assignments, threatens to chill student expression—a danger over which the U.S. Supreme Court has expressed concern. However, Somerset Academy’s actions did just that, causing Mackenzie to fear expressing her faith in school assignments. Thankfully, this school was quick to correct its actions, teaching its students that it is not wrong to express their religious beliefs in school.

STANDING FOR RELIGIOUS LIBERTY MAKES A DIFFERENCE

As Mackenzie’s case demonstrates, victory is often close in many cases of religious liberty violations. Sometimes, school officials have been confused by the false rhetoric of secularist activists who try to subvert student religious liberty by intimidating teachers and administrators. Either way, success cannot be realized until school officials understand what the law actually says and those who experience violations of their constitutional rights to free speech and religious expression know their rights, and then speak out and stand for religious liberty.

When students—and teachers—know their rights in the classroom, they are empowered to exercise their rights, stand for religious freedom, and make a difference in restoring religious liberty in America.


Please click here if you would like to give a donation to help defend and restore religious freedom.


About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.FirstLiberty.org.

Social Facebook Social Instagram Social Twitter Social Youtube Social Linkedin Social Soundcloud

Terms of UsePrivacy PolicySitemap • © 2022 Liberty Institute® is a trademark of First Liberty Institute