5 Lessons on Standing Up for Religious Freedom at School
Focus on the Family recently launched the nationwide Bring Your Bible to School Day—a religious-freedom event for students in K-12 schools and colleges. On this day, thousands of student voluntarily brought their Bibles to school—both as a visual celebration of religious freedom and also as a way to start conversations and share God’s hope with their peers. (View feedback and photos from students and their families, including the photo on the left from Cara, a mom in Indiana, who wrote about her two boys, Carson, 10-years-old and Samuel, 5, participating in the event.)
On that day, participants also received a statement of support from Paul Rubeo, a father who found himself in the national news after speaking up for his fifth-grade age son’s religious freedom rights at school. Paul spoke to Focus on the Family on the evening of the Bring Your Bible event and about his family’s experience—and some lessons they learned along the way.
Lesson #1: “It Brought Us Closer.”
His family’s religious-freedom adventures began when his son, Giovanni, received a Bible as a gift from his church. It quickly became one of Giovanni’s most cherished possessions, so he began bringing it with him to class to read during the free-reading period. (Giovanni is featured in the picture at left sitting next to his father—taken during a family outing on Giovanni’s birthday.)
“He actually loved the Old Testament stories,” Paul said. “It was a young boy who loved the adventure of the stories he was reading—the thrill and the adventure of the stories in the Bible.”
But that excitement turned to negativity at school. According to a letter sent from a legal group (Liberty Institute), “when his teacher saw Giovanni reading his Bible, she asked, ‘What book is that that you are reading?’ In response, Giovanni cautiously held up his Bible.” The teacher then “demanded, ‘Put it on my desk!’” Later, the teacher “left the following message [on his father’s voice mail] while Giovanni’s peers looked on: ‘I noticed that he [Giovanni] has a book—a religious book—in the classroom. He’s not permitted to read those books in my classroom.”
The good news is that Paul and Giovanni spoke up for students’ religious-freedom rights—and they were successful: The school agreed that Giovanni should be allowed to read his Bible during the free-reading period.
Even so, it can be easy for families to feel intimidated about speaking up, especially when they receive confident-sounding messages from school officials that can cause them to doubt whether students really do have religious-freedom rights. However, Paul, said the process of getting educated about those rights—and the experience of speaking up about it—actually strengthened he and Giovanni’s relationship. “He and I got closer going through that… You pull together as a family when you stand up for something together.”
“Kids love knowing that mom and dad have got their backs, and parents love the feeling that, ‘I took care of my kids.’” And that leads to another important point:
Lesson #2: Involve Your Parents!
Sometimes it’s easy for students to feel like they don’t want to make a big deal out of a problem they are having at school—and as a result, they may not say anything to their parents when they are verbally chastised at school for expressing a religious belief.
“When my son tried to tell a teacher on his own [that he did have the right to read his Bible], he was corrected and scolded.” But if students can involve their parents at the beginning, he explained, mom or dad can give you much-needed perspective on how to address the issue. And “if it’s a smaller issue the parent can talk” with the school official “one on one.” If it’s a bigger issue, the parent can work with the student to have a meeting with the principal or other educators.
Paul also encouraged parents not to remain silent if their children come to them with a concern that sounds like a possible religious-freedom violation, or censorship. (Read our Fast Facts about students’ First Amendment rights.)
While families might face fears about incurring negative backlash for speaking up, “it’s actually fun to be courageous” and a good lesson for kids, he said. “Because when you stand up against your giant, when you face your fears, it no longer enslaves you. The Goliath could be [pressure from] the school system, or it could be anything else in your life—fear of rejection.”
Lesson #4 : Don’t Be Afraid to Involve Other National Groups
It’s important to first try to resolve the issue with school officials as respectfully and as peacefully as possible, but if educators continue to practice what you feel is unconstitutional censorship or illegal viewpoint discrimination against your child’s religious perspective—it may be time to get help from a Christian legal ministry, such as Alliance Defending Freedom or, as in Paul’s case, Liberty Institute.
When he decided to contact Liberty Institute, said Paul, it was because “I felt it was my need at that point to do something and protect my family. … because my son was doing something honorable and they were making it dishonorable.”
Paul emphasized that, of course, legal help should be a last resort, but if it comes to that “do not be afraid, because that’s what these [Christian legal organizations] are for. “Is it more important for us to be comfortable or to do what is right for our families?”
Lesson #5: Educate Your Children
Finally, he emphasized the importance of being proactive in educating children about our nation’s religious-freedom heritage and what their constitutional rights are. “Teach your children what is acceptable and what is not [when it comes to expressing religious beliefs at school]. (Read our Know Your Rights section about religious-freedom activities students can do on campus.)
That’s why Paul said he loves the idea of Bring Your Bible to School Day and wanted to publicly support it. “It’s an extra tool parents have to share the event with them, let them know it’s a constitutional right—it’s their religious liberty to take their Bible to school.”
“It only takes a spark to get a fire going. If the kids could see this as a movement—everybody wants to be part of something bigger than them. This is a civil rights movement, a love movement, a freedom movement—it’s based on true love and truth!”