A conservative religious-rights group targeted Broward County on Monday in an ongoing campaign contending that faith is under attack in America’s elementary schools.
The facts involving a Park Lakes Elementary student seeking to read a Bible in school, like other similar cases before it, are in dispute — but that didn’t prevent the story from going viral on conservative websites and news media.
At a media event organized by Texas-based Liberty Institute, Park Lake fifth-grader Giovanni Rubeo and his father complained that his classroom’s “free reading time” excluded the Bible — and threatened to file a federal religious discrimination lawsuit against the Broward school district.
Giovanni said he tried to read his new Bible repeatedly over the last few weeks during free-reading class periods — but said his teacher didn’t approve. The student and his father claim that the teacher instead forced Giovanni to pick up another book.
“She just told me to put it away, and I cooperated,” the 12-year-old said during a press conference in front of the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale.
Broward school officials rejected the accusation, saying the student wasn’t asking to read the Bible during a free-reading session but during a classroom “accelerated reading’’ program. The district says it allows Bibles to be included in free-reading periods — this just wasn’t one of them.
In a statement, the Broward school district said it “respects and upholds the rights of students to bring personal religious materials to school, including the Bible, and to read these items before school, after school or during any ‘free reading’ time during the school day. This information has been communicated to the parents of the student involved in this situation.”
Representing the Rubeo family is the Liberty Institute, which bills itself as “the largest legal organization dedicated solely to defending and restoring religious liberty in America.” The conservative group launched a similar protest against a Texas school district last month — in that instance, it was a second-grader who was allegedly not allowed to read the Bible.
The Texas school district also said it could not substantiate that the Bible incident really happened. Also last month, a Central Florida school district found no evidence of another Liberty Institute complaint alleging that a school official told a 5-year-old girl to stop praying during lunch.
“We found zero evidence an incident ever occurred,” Seminole County Schools spokesman Mike Lawrence told the Orlando Sentinel recently. “There's no proof whatsoever.”
Despite the denials from schools, Liberty has proven adept at gaining publicity for its cases. Fox News was among outlets that picked up the story.
“Had the kid ... been reading Fifty Shades of Grey, he probably would’ve been given a gold star,” wrote Fox News commentator Todd Starnes.
Giovanni’s family lives in Lauderhill, and worships at Calvary Chapel. Liberty Institute senior counsel Jeremiah Dys, joined the student and his father, Paul Rubeo, at the media event.
“Kids in school do not shed their First Amendment rights when they come on the grounds of the school,” Dys said. The attorney accused Broward of “an egregious violation of the Constitution” and said the family plans to sue unless the district changes its policies and issues a public apology.
Paul Rubeo brushed aside comments that Giovanni’s case might be viewed as a publicity stunt.
“The issue is civil rights ... it’s much bigger than just his incident,” he said.
Florida International University law professor Howard Wasserman said students are generally allowed to read religious materials at school when they’re not in class, such as during lunch. But a free-reading period doesn’t mean that any and all books are automatically permitted, he said. Schools should take care to not specifically single out religious texts for exclusion, but they still retain the power to define the curriculum.
“Free reading doesn’t have an obvious and inherent meaning,” Wasserman said. “It means what the school district says it means.”