MARYLAND — The Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based non-profit civil liberties group, filed a lawsuit last week against the Prince George’s County School District for violating a teenage girl’s First and 14th Amendment rights when they allegedly stopped her from reading a Bible.
The lawsuit claims that Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School infringed upon seventh grader Amber Mangum’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion by not allowing her to read the Bible in her free time during the lunch hour.
According to the school’s policy, the lunch hour is considered “non-instructional time,” in which students may engage in activities that “do not cause disruption.”
The complaint refers to the school’s policy that states, “[s]tudents have the same right to engage in individual or group prayer and religious discussion during the school day as they do to engage in other comparable activity. Students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray before tests to the same extent they may engage in comparable, non-disruptive activities.”
“The school district’s policy is really clear,” said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute. “It’s amazing in this case that they are going against their own policy.”
According to the lawsuit, Vice Principal Jeanette Rainey approached Mangum during lunch, ordering her to put away her Bible, and said that reading it in school was against policy. Rainey also said that if Mangum were caught reading the Bible again, she would be subject to discipline.
“Amber has been a Christian for less than a year. It was her one time of the day [in school] to sit quietly reading the Bible,” Whitehead said. “This is important to her.”
Both Mangum’s guardian and Whitehead wrote letters to the school’s administration urging a conference on the matter, but the school did not respond, Whitehead said.
After the lawsuit was filed, John White, communications officer for the school district, said that it would investigate the incident to discover what may or may not have occurred.
White said the school’s policy clearly states that students may read the Bible during their free time. “We take any type of allegations very serious,” White said. “We have an administrative procedure in place to protect student’s rights.”
The lawsuit is now pending in U.S. District Court.
“This is an important case because it seems to be the sense in schools that there can’t be any religion, and that needs to be corrected,” Whitehead said. “I’m glad people like Amber are willing to fight it.”