Paul Rubeo sat stunned. He replayed the voicemail from his son’s fifth-grade teacher and winced: “Good morning, Mr. Rubeo. Giovanni called you because I asked him to. I noticed that he has a book, a religious book, in the classroom. He’s not permitted to read those books in my classroom.” The book in question? The Bible.
It all started with Giovanni reading his Bible during free-reading time at his elementary school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and his teacher instructing him to put it away because it was not an approved book. Giovanni complied but didn’t understand.
“I wanted to read the Bible because it gives me a lot of wisdom and helps me a lot,” he told Decision. “Every other kid got to read whatever book they wanted, so why couldn’t I read the Bible?”
When Giovanni explained the situation to his father and asked him what he should do, Paul researched the Internet. He told his son that his teacher was violating his constitutional rights, and if she told him once more he couldn’t read the Bible he should call him immediately.
On April 8, Giovanni attempted to read his Bible during the free-reading period, but his teacher demanded that he put it on her desk. When Giovanni objected—stating that his father said she was violating his First Amendment rights—she ordered him to telephone his dad. Then, as the other students watched, the teacher called Paul and left that stinging voicemail.
“I was shocked and frustrated,” Paul said. “Then I felt angry that the school would take it to this level and be so forward about it.”
Paul phoned the school principal and district superintendent but got nowhere. Next he contacted the Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas. When Liberty’s attorneys asserted the right of Giovanni to read his Bible during free-reading time, school officials claimed it was not free-reading time but instead the Accelerated Reader Program, during which religious books—including the Bible—were not permitted.
But after further investigation, Liberty Institute attorneys discovered that 60 of the Bible’s 66 books were indeed among the more than 1,000 titles approved by the Broward Public School System for its Accelerated Reader Program.
In a reversal, outlined in a letter dated May 18, the deputy general counsel for the School Board of Broward County assured the Liberty Institute that students would be permitted to read their Bibles during the Accelerated Reader Program.
“We’re pleased that one of the largest school systems in the country is now complying with the law,” said Jeremy Dys, Liberty Institute senior counsel.
That announcement was also good news to the Rubeos. “It made me feel good to know students have the constitutional right to read their Bible,” said the 12-year-old Giovanni, who is now in middle school.
Paul added, “Though we felt uncomfortable at times, we weren’t afraid to stand up for what’s right and take a stand for Jesus.”
Boldness Drastically Needed
For decades, the Name of God and the Word of God have been disappearing from public schools in the U.S.
Just recently, a California charter school removed Christian-themed books from its library. And atheists and humanists are fighting to erase two Bible verses—Philippians 4:13 and Romans 8:31—from a monument that a Georgia high school football team traditionally touches as players make their way from the field house to the gridiron. And yet, Satanists are openly targeting public schools in Orlando, Fla., to disseminate demonic-themed coloring books to children.
Access to Scripture is at the center of another legal case involving a substitute teacher at a public school in Warren County, N.J. Walt Tutka was fired for giving a middle school student a pocket New Testament.
On the morning of Sept. 4, 2012, while holding open the door at the top of the stairs at the middle school, Tutka commented to the final student through: “The last shall be first, and the first last.” Later, the student asked him about the phrase, and Tutka told him it was from the Bible.
The next time Tutka was at that school—Sept. 25—the student asked again about the verse, and Tutka told him the passage was Matthew 20:16. The student remarked that he didn’t own a Bible.
On Oct. 12, Tutka again ran into the student. This time, he pulled out a pocket New Testament and showed the student the passage. “Since he had mentioned he didn’t have a Bible, I said he could have mine,” Tutka said. “He gladly accepted, and we were on our way.”
Word spread quickly, and a few minutes later, Tutka was called to the principal’s office. After Tutka explained the month long course of events, the principal said the superintendent would need to be notified, and he dismissed Tutka for the day.
After several formal hearings and more individual meetings, the board of education terminated Tutka’s employment as a substitute teacher in the school district. Tutka retained the Liberty Institute, which filed a formal charge of employment discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
At the core of the case is Tutka’s involvement with Gideons International, since the New Testament that Tutka gave to the student originated with the Gideons. The superintendent claimed Tutka violated a policy that forbids the distribution of religious materials. “I was not engaging in a Bible distribution when I handed the student the Bible,” Tutka stated. “My handing the Bible to the student was no different than a librarian checking out a Bible to a student.
“While this has been an opportunity for me to stand up for Christ, ultimately this is not about me,” Tutka told Decision. “It’s about God’s Word, and He is in control.”
The Liberty Institute is awaiting the EEOC’s final decision.
Tragically, what’s taking place within our schools is reflective of what’s occurring in nearly every other facet of American culture. Activist groups are intent on removing God from public life and trying to eradicate the impact of Christians within society. As the decline picks up speed, more and more parents are enrolling their children in Christian schools or choosing to homeschool.
But can believers afford to abandon the 49.8 million students attending public elementary and secondary schools across the country?
“Christian schools and homeschooling are valid options,” said Finn Laursen, executive director of Christian Educators Association International. “But the truth is, the majority of Christian kids and non-Christian kids are in public school.
“I contend that the public school system is the most open, viable and legal mission field in the United States,” added Laursen, who was a public school educator for 32 years as a teacher, counselor, principal and superintendent before taking CEAI’s helm in 2003.
Finn is thankful that, despite efforts to the contrary, the light of the Gospel still shines through students, teachers, administrators and staff who are faithful to Jesus Christ. “A small light in a dark place can make all the difference in the world,” he said.
Christ’s Light is Shining
Three Christians who are making that kind of difference are Bill, a high school principal on the East Coast; Heather, an elementary school reading specialist in the Midwest; and David, a high school social studies teacher on the West Coast. Since they have to daily navigate a minefield of legal constraints, each asked Decision for anonymity.
Bill has been a teacher and principal for more than 20 years. He and his wife have two children in public schools.
“Christians should not run from public schools but rather support them,” he said. “I don’t shed my religious rights at the schoolhouse door. My faith and principles from God’s Word guide me every day.”
If asked a direct question about his beliefs, Bill doesn’t hesitate to answer. “I believe I’m called to display the love of Christ and to speak into a student’s life about God’s goodness for them,” he said. “I can’t proselytize, but I enjoy planting seeds of encouragement.”
Heather, a teacher for 22 years, the last seven as a reading specialist, relishes opportunities to invest in her students. She recalls one boy in particular, who struggled with reading and whom she saw for five years. “He’s now in high school, and his mom told me language arts is his favorite subject and he’s getting straight A’s,” Heather said. “That’s so rewarding.”
What’s also special to Heather is building strong relationships with her colleagues. Knowing that the life of a teacher is demanding and sometimes demoralizing, Heather and a couple of other teachers decided to start a prayer group before school. Their principal granted permission. Twelve initially came, and about 20 now participate.
Heather has approached other schools about initiating similar groups. Eight are up and running.
“This Christian community uplifts us and helps keep us going,” Heather said.
David, in his 15th year as a teacher, continues to get excited each time one of his students passes the Advanced Placement exam or is accepted into Yale or Stanford or West Point. But David is even more gratified when he’s able to take an historical event or figure and weave issues of character and biblical virtues into his lessons.
David made such an impact on the lives of two students that they asked him years later—because he had attended seminary—to take them through pre-marital counseling and then to marry them. He recently attended the couple’s first baby shower.
And then there’s the student who visited with David a year after graduating. She asked probing questions about Christianity. David presented the Gospel and, right there, she committed her life to Christ.
“I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than what I’m doing,” David said. ©2014 BGEA
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