CINCINNATI — Luke Whitson and his friends would meet on the playground of their Tennessee elementary school to read and discuss Bible passages. Then their principal stopped them, landing yet another case in the courts on the contentious issue of religion in public schools.
Though the school quickly changed its policy to allow students to read religious texts in their own time, the childrens' parents have pursued the case, arguing that the principal infringed on their children's First Amendment rights.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals took the case brought by Luke Whitson's parents, Samuel and Tina Whitson, on the briefs filed in the case and waived oral arguments on Wednesday.
Nathan Kellum, an attorney with the Arizona-based Christian legal group the Alliance Defense Fund, described Luke Whitson as "a Christian who considers Bible study an essential and indispensable component of his faith." Kellum said the Whitsons didn't get a fair trial by jury because of multiple errors made by the trial judge.
Gary Prince, an attorney for Knox County Schools, said the entire case is based on a misunderstanding by the student and his parents and that the trial judge did not err in handling the lawsuit.
The case arose in 2004, when a parent complained about Luke Whitson and several other fourth-grade students meeting under a tree on the playground at Karns Elementary School in Knoxville and holding Bible readings and discussions.
During the 30-minute recess period, students were allowed to gather on the playground and do almost anything they pleased, so long as it did not disrupt the ongoing school day. Tennessee law considers such time as instructional time, covered by the same policies as the classroom.
"It is common for students at (Karns Elementary) to gather and discuss written materials, such as school assignments, American Girl doll magazines, elementary-age books (such as Harry Potter), and other materials not banned by the school," Kellum told the court in his brief.
There is some dispute whether the students were ever clearly told that they could not bring their Bibles.
After hearing the parents' complaint, Principal Cathy Summa met with three students who sought to have Bible study groups led by an adult, but not Luke Whitson. Summa turned down that request as a violation of a school policy barring adults from leading Bible study during school hours.
"This Bible discussion did not involve any parents, teachers, or other adults; it was maintained entirely by fourth-graders," Kellum said.
A teacher relayed to a friend of Whitson that organized Bible study during school hours wasn't permissible. But, students continued to bring Bibles to school and meet on their own, Prince said.
"The children understood they could still have their Bibles and talk about them," Prince said.
At trial, Luke Whitson testified that no one teacher or administrator ever told him not to bring a Bible to school to read and talk about at recess.
"Knox County asserted time and again and clearly at the trial of this case that the whole situation was a misunderstanding," Gary Prince, the school district attorney, said.
In 2006, the Knox County School board adopted a policy that specifically allows students to read religious texts at school during "discretionary time." The adoption of that policy didn't resolve the federal lawsuit brought by the Whitsons, who are seeking monetary damages.
The Whitsons pressed on, filing suit in federal court in 2005 in Knoxville. After the jury's verdict, U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips turned down a request to overturn the decision, prompting the Whitson's to appeal.
"(Luke Whitson) was kept from engaging in a Bible study despite maintaining a desire to express his beliefs in this way," Kellum said.