Broward schools’ Runcie says Bible controversy ‘should’ve been handled differently’

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie on Tuesday publicly apologized to a fifth-grade student who says his teacher wouldn’t let him read his Bible in class, with the superintendent saying “this is a situation that should’ve been handled differently.”

“This does not represent the values of our school system,” Runcie said. “This was a isolated incident at the school.”

The case attracted national attention — particularly among conservative news sites and commentators, many of whom were critical of Broward’s actions.

“Epic failure on this one,” wrote Sarah Palin on her Facebook page.

The family of 12-year-old Giovanni Rubeo says their child wasn’t allowed to read his Bible during “free reading” class periods that gave students the option of reading any book they wished. The Broward school district disputes this version of events, and says the boy wasn’t allowed to read the Bible because there was an “accelerated reading” program taking place.

Had there been a “free reading” session going on, Broward officials say the Bible would have been permitted. Rubeo is a student at Park Lakes Elementary in Lauderdale Lakes.

In his comments on Tuesday, Runcie said administrators at Park Lakes — and schools across the district — are being reminded that the Bible is permitted during free reading sessions. Students are also allowed to read their Bibles before and after school starts, and during lunch.

A voicemail left by Giovanni’s teacher last month further fueled the controversy. A recording of the message, which was left for Giovanni’s father, includes the teacher stating “I noticed that he has a book — a religious book — in the classroom. He’s not permitted to read those books in my classroom.”

Rubeo’s family is being represented by the Texas-based Liberty Institute, a conservative legal group that has launched similar battles against schools across the country. In multiple cases, the accusations of the Liberty Institute have been disputed by school districts — for example, Florida’s Seminole County school system last month found no evidence that a five-year-old girl had been scolded for praying during lunch, as had been claimed.

The Liberty Institute had blasted Seminole County’s treatment of the little girl as “outrageous.” The kindergartner involved, Gabriella, is the daughter of Marcos Perez, who is vice president of sales at Charisma House, a Lake Mary-based Christian book publisher. The company is promoting the book “God Less America: Real Stories From the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values,” by Fox News host Todd Starnes.

Perez rejected the notion of ulterior motives when speaking to the Orlando Sentinel.

“I'm a father first, a VP of sales second,” he said.

In Broward, the Liberty Institute’s attorneys had threatened legal action against the school system unless it publicly apologized and allowed for the Bible to be read during “free reading” periods.

With Runcie’s public apology — and the district’s insistence that the Bible had all along been acceptable during “free reading” — those conditions appear to have been met.

But in a letter e-mailed to the school district on Tuesday, Liberty Institute director of litigation Hiram Sasser demanded assurances that Giovanni be allowed to read his Bible during “accelerated reading program” class periods as well.

“If we do not receive a satisfactory response, we will proceed with the appropriate legal steps up to and including litigation,” Sasser wrote.