7-year-old quizzed on religion, ordered to sit alone at lunch for telling classmates he didn't believe in GodWashington Post
August 4, 2015
A lawsuit recently filed against a teacher at Forest Park Elementary School in Indiana alleged that a 7-year-old student was "banished" from sitting with other students at lunch after he revealed that he did not believe in God.
The allegations from the Complaint, which claims the teacher's actions violated the child's First Amendment rights:
1. In February of 2015, A.B. was a second grader at Forest Park Elementary School, a school that is within Fort Wayne Community Schools. During a discussion with classmates on the playground he responded to a question by indicating that he did not go to church because he did not believe in God. This resulted in his teacher interrogating the child as to his beliefs and requiring the child to sit by himself during lunch and not talk to his classmates during lunch for three days. This violates the First Amendment. The defendant's actions caused great distress to A.B. and resulted in the child being ostracized by his peers past the three-day "banishment." No meaningful attempt has been made to remedy these injuries and the child seeks his damages. . . .
7. In February of 2015, A.B. was a second-grade student at Forest Park Elementary School. . . .
9. On or about February 23, 2015, A.B. and his classmates were on the playground during the school day immediately before lunch when A.B. was asked by one of his classmates if he attended church.
10. A.B. responded by stating that he did not go to church and did not believe in God. He also stated that it was fine with him if his inquiring classmate believed in God.
11. The classmate said that A.B. had hurt her feelings by saying that he did not believe in God and started to cry.
12. A playground supervisor reported to [A.B.'s teacher] what had happened.
13. At that point the students were going to lunch and [the teacher] asked A.B. if he had told the girl that he did not believe in God and A.B. said he had and asked what he had done wrong.
14. [The teacher] asked A.B. if he went to church, whether his family went to church, and whether his mother knew how he felt about God.
15. She also asked A.B. if he believed that maybe God exists.
16. [The teacher] told A.B. that she was very concerned about what he had done and that she was going to contact his mother - although she never did.
17. This was very upsetting to A.B. as he was made to feel that he had done something wrong.
18. A day or two after the initial incident, A.B. and his fellow-student who had become upset with his comment on the playground were sent to another adult employed at Forest Park Elementary School.
19. This person asked them what the problem was and A.B. indicated that his classmate had become upset when, in response to her question, he had said he did not go to church and did not believe in God.
20. Upon hearing this, the adult employee looked at A.B.'s classmate and stated that she should not be worried and should be happy she has faith and that she should not listen to A.B.'s bad ideas. She then patted the little girl's hand.
21. This was, again, extremely upsetting to A.B. as it reinforced his feeling that he had done something very wrong.
22. On the day of the incident and for an additional two days thereafter, [the teacher] required that A.B. sit by himself during lunch and told him he should not talk to the other students and stated that this was because he had offended them. This served to reinforce A.B.'s feeling that he had committed some transgression that justified his exclusion.
23. When V.S. was told by A.B. what had happened she called the Assistant Principal of the school and demanded an explanation.
24. The Assistant Principal set up a three-way telephone conversation with V.S., [the teacher] and himself.
25. [The teacher] confirmed her involvement in this matter as noted above.
26. V.S. demanded that the school not isolate her son or punish him for his beliefs.
27. After three days A.B. was allowed to join his classmates for lunch and all sanctions and restrictions were lifted.
28. After this three-day period, and after V.S. complained, A.B. was told by [the teacher] and other teachers that he could believe what he wants.
29. But this was after A.B. had been publicly separated from his classmates and informed that he could not speak to them. All the students in his class heard and were aware of this. He was publicly shamed and made to feel that his personal beliefs were terribly wrong.
30. No efforts were made to correct the damages that had been done.
31. A.B. came home from school on multiple occasions crying saying that he knows that everyone at school - teachers and students - hate him.
32. Even now there are some classmates who will not talk to A.B.
33. Even now A.B. remains anxious and fearful about school, which is completely contrary to how he felt before this incident.
34. At all times defendant acted, and refused to act, under color of state law.
The school district released a statement saying, "It is clear that it is not the province of a public school to advance or inhibit religious beliefs or practices. Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, this remains the inviolate province of the individual and the church of his/her choice. The rights of any minority, no matter how small, must be protected." So far, the court hasn't decided any substantive matters in the case, but it did issue a decision last Tuesday allowing the child's mother (as the child's legal guardian) to proceed anonymously, so as to preserve the child's anonymity to the extent possible:
A.B. is a young child and this suit involves religion and public schools-a topic that "has a tendency to inflame unreasonably some individuals" in most communities, including Fort Wayne. Accordingly, at this time, the Court finds that the risk to A.B.'s health and safety, if his mother is identified by name, outweighs the public's interest in judicial openness and overcomes the presumption against anonymous litigation.
The complaint was filed by the ACLU of Indiana.