Parents of Second Grader Sue School for Religious Discrimination

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - A Massachusetts second grader was told she could not share a book with her class because it was about the birth of Christ, and now, after failed attempts to resolve the dispute with the school district, the girl's parents have sued in federal court.

"The actions of the school district are not only unconstitutional, but send a disturbing message to all elementary school students - that religious beliefs must be treated the same way the school handles profanity or offensive behavior - not permitted at school," said attorney Vincent McCarthy, senior counsel for the Pat Robertson-founded American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). The ACLJ is representing seven-year-old Laura Greska and her parents.

The complaint, filed earlier this week, alleges that Massachusetts' Leominster Public School District discriminated against Laura based on her religious beliefs and violated both her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, including her fundamental rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

As part of an assignment last December requiring Northwest Elementary students to bring a Christmas-related book to class, Laura chose to share a Little Golden Book called "The Christmas Story." But after she began reading from it, her teacher asked her to stop because "religious" material was not allowed in the classroom.

The ACLJ's complaint contends that while other students were allowed to share books with other holiday characters such as Santa Claus, Laura was not permitted to "communicate, on the same basis as all other students, her family's Christmas tradition when given the opportunity in her classroom."

"She was so sad by it," Laura's mother Jessie Greska told CNSNews.com. "She came home and she felt disappointed ... so we did some checking and found that it was definitely her right to do that [share the book]."

"This is a troubling example of a school district that is clearly exhibiting hostility toward religion and targeting its discrimination against a very young and impressionable elementary school child," McCarthy stated.

Jessie Greska said that while Leominster school administrators prohibited references to Christmas, they did allow discussions dealing with other religious traditions like Kwanza.

"We're not demanding people," Mrs. Greska said, explaining that her lawsuit was filed as a matter of principle rather than as an attempt at monetary gain. "They teach tolerance, which is great ... but not on a Christian behalf?"

According to Mrs. Greska, she asked both the teacher and the school's administration to resolve the situation, but the school "wouldn't budge on it." It was then that the Greskas chose to take the matter to the ACLJ.

The ACLJ is asking the court "to declare the school district's action invalid and unconstitutional" and that it "permanently enjoin the school district from engaging any further in this type of discriminatory action."

McCarthy said schools and teachers often misunderstand the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which prohibits Congress from passing any law that either establishes religion or prevents its free expression. "In a knee-jerk fashion," schools often "take the position that any religion in the public schools is outlawed by the Establishment Clause," McCarthy said.

Such cases are usually settled once a demand letter is sent that outlines the precedents and the law, according to McCarthy.

"Because the school has taken such an untypical position, it's really hard to say what will happen with the case," he noted. "I'm just surprised that we've had to sue."

Diane Carreiro, the principal of Northwest Elementary School, refused to comment, while repeated attempts to contact the Leominster Public School District's Superintendent Marilyn Fratturelly as well as defense attorney Regina Williams Tate were unsuccessful.

E-mail a news tip to Jessica Cantelon.

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