|School officials told sixth-grader Mackenzie Fraiser she can’t use a Bible verse in her school project.|
This week, First Liberty Institute sent a demand letter to school officials at Somerset Academy, a public charter school in Las Vegas, Nevada, after 12-year-old Mackenzie Fraiser was denied the right to include a Bible verse in a class assignment called “All About Me.”
In February 2015, Mackenzie, who is in sixth grade, was assigned to compose a PowerPoint presentation called “All About Me.” This presentation was to include a slide with an “inspirational saying” that explained more about who she is as a person. Since Mackenzie’s Christian faith is a central aspect of who she is, Mackenzie wanted to include a Bible verse—John 3:16—as the inspirational saying in her project.
However, the teacher informed the class that they could not use “Bible verses or quotations from the Book of Mormon” on the “inspirational sayings” slide, so Mackenzie was forced to choose a nonreligious saying.
A few months later, in May, the class was assigned a project on self-esteem. When Mackenzie contemplated explaining that her self-esteem is rooted in being created in the image of God, Mackenzie grew nervous. She told her parents that her teacher had said students are not allowed to include Bible verses in their assignments, so she thought it was wrong—or even illegal—to talk about her faith in an assignment.
UNCONSTITUTIONAL CENSORSHIP OF RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION
Mackenzie’s father, a pastor, contacted the school to find out why his daughter had not been allowed to include a Bible verse in her project. Somerset Academy’s Assistant Principal replied to Pastor Fraiser that the school was following U.S. Department of Education guidelines. However, the school was wrong: U.S. Department of Education guidelines expressly permit student religious expression in class assignments.
“Students have a constitutional right to express their beliefs in class assignments,” says Jeremy Dys, First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel. “Banning students from expressing their religious beliefs in class assignments teaches students that religion is bad. When school officials violate the civil rights of religious students, they must apologize and reaffirm the right of their students to express their faith in school assignments.
“The Supreme Court and the United States Department of Education repeatedly recognize that ‘Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions,’” Dys explains, quoting the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines on the subject.
First Liberty Institute’s demand letter gives Somerset Academy school officials 10 days to issue a written apology to the Fraisers and allow Mackenzie to resubmit her assignment using a Bible verse of her choice.
GROWING HOSTILITY TO RELIGION IN THE SCHOOL
In the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) decision, Justice Abe Fortas wrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Despite this decision and other Supreme Court precedents, Mackenzie is not the only student to experience the violation of free speech and religious liberty rights. First Liberty Institute clients who have suffered from hostility to religion in the school also include:
First Liberty Institute’s Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America chronicles many more violations of religious liberty rights in the school.
COMMITTED TO DEFENDING RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
First Liberty Institute is dedicated to protecting the constitutional right of Mackenzie and students like her to freely express their faith without censorship. The U.S. Constitution and federal law protect religious liberty, and with a more than 90% win rate, the non-profit legal firm is confident that Mackenzie’s case will be successfully resolved.
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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.