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FIRST-PERSON: Pencils, candy canes and absurd court rulings

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–The Baptist Messenger’s trusty unabridged dictionary defines “absurd” as “ridiculously senseless, illogical, contrary to reason or common sense.”

Absurd was the word that popped into my brain when I heard of an Aug. 27 ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

When I first heard about the court’s decision, I thought that surely it must be one of those urban myths or Internet hoaxes like the “Pepsi can” or “the FCC’s ban on potential Christian broadcasting.” Usually, when some story comes across the media that is incredibly fantastic, I am inclined to get some kind of validation before I start believing the tale.

The word “absurd” popped into my brain as I read a downloaded copy of this federal court’s decision. The story begins in 1998 when a little kindergarten boy from a Christian family distributed to his classmates — are you ready for this? — pencils with the imprinted message, “Jesus [heart shape] the Little Children.” The teacher then confiscated the pencils and promptly contacted her superintendent and other school officials.

The Egg Harbor, N.J., Board of Education then established a written policy regarding distribution of materials. The boy’s parents understood this new policy gave their son the freedom to share gifts with a Gospel message on them. Wrong!

So the next year, the boy brought candy canes to the “winter holiday party.” Attached to each gift was a printed story about the origin of the candy cane. Candy Maker’s Witness is a story about a candy maker in Indiana who wanted to make candy that would be a witness.

According to the story, he invented the candy cane and attached Christian messages to the candy. For example, the white color of the cane recognized the virgin birth of Jesus. The shape of a shepherd’s staff referenced Jesus who is the “Good Shepherd.” The candy maker stained it with red stripes. He used three small stripes to show the stripes of the scourging of Jesus. The large red stripe was for the blood shed by Christ on the cross so that everyone could receive the promise of eternal life.

The school district officials would allow distribution of this candy only before school, during recess and after school and not during the “parties.” The family finally had enough of the perceived (or actual) stonewalling by school officials and sued the district for violation of the student’s right to free speech.

John Whitehead, a constitutional law expert and the president of The Rutherford Institute, said of the decision, “This decision is probably one of the worst I’ve ever read.” Whitehead further stated, “Students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gates.” Whitehead plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

As I read the case, I jotted down some questions in the margin. If the school district and the court struggled with wholesome religious symbols at Christmas, what did the school district do with Halloween? It is a thoroughly non-Christian religious holiday. Are the religious expressions of spiritists allowed in the classroom with witches and ghosts? Is the distribution of candy with these messages acceptable?

Part of the absurdity of this decision is the mythological philosophy of a “religion neutral” educational context. It is impossible to compartmentalize a person’s faith. That faith permeates one’s values, decision-making and social interaction. There is no such thing as a religion-free zone in business, government or educational institutions. Because of the First Amendment, we tolerate in the classical sense one another’s expressions, and government cannot favor one group over another.

There are two persons victimized by this scenario. One is the boy — and his family — who are not afforded the same liberties of expression as others, especially those who are rabidly passionate about creating an educational experience void of faith expressions.

Secondly, the public school teacher appears either to be a victim of or a zealot for secularism. If she is a victim, it is because she wants to teach her children truth and intellectual skill. If so, she must be paranoid about an administration constantly looking over her shoulder to see if she complies with perceived First Amendment guidelines. Why aren’t teaching professionals allowed the liberty to teach? There is far too much micromanagement of the classrooms.

In a perfect world, the boy would have passed out the pencils and the candy canes. The teacher and the school district officials would not have made an issue over it and neither would the parents of the boy’s classmates. There would be no lawsuit. This whole event was simply a kind gesture by a little boy who cared about his friends.
John Yeats is editor of the Baptist Messenger in Oklahoma.

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