Hood v. Medford Township Board of Education
In 1996, Zachary Hood, a 1st grade student in Medford, New Jersey, chose to bring a children’s Bible to school to read aloud to his class. When his teacher told him that he could not read it because of its religious nature, Zachary’s mother defended his rights in court. After both the federal district court and Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Zachary, Becket obtained a rehearing. In 2000, the full Third Circuit heard the case and issued a split 6-6 decision, leaving in place the district court’s ruling. When the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, Becket continued pursuing another issue that had become part of the lawsuit: a religious Thanksgiving poster Zachary had made that was taken down by his teacher because of its religious content. In November 2002, the town of Medford agreed to settle the case. In response to the lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Education issued official guidance stating that “students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination.” At Becket, they’re known as “Zach’s Rules.”
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The Bible: A first grader’s favorite book to read to his class
In 1996, a 1st grade teacher at Haines Elementary School in Medford Township, New Jersey asked her students to choose a story from a favorite book to read aloud in class. Zachary Hood chose to bring his children’s Bible so he could read “A Big Family,” a story in which two brothers, Jacob and Esau, reunite. The story met all the teacher’s requirements regarding complexity and length. Yet after reviewing the story, the teacher refused to allow Zachary to read it to his classmates because she thought his religious speech should be banned from the classroom.
Becket defends religious speech in the classroom
When the Board of Education defended the teacher’s discrimination and censorship, Zachary’s mother Carol sued the Medford Township Board of Education arguing that the school violated Zachary’s First Amendment rights to free speech and religious liberty. After a federal district court sided with the Board of Education and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, Becket stepped in and obtained a rehearing. In February 2000, the full Third Circuit heard oral argument, and later the sharply divided court issued a split 6-6 decision, leaving in place the district court’s ruling against Zachary’s right to read his Bible.
When the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, Becket continued pursuing Zachary’s lawsuit against the Board of Education on a related issue that had become part of the case: a religious Thanksgiving poster Zachary had made that was taken down from his classroom’s walls. In November 2002, the Township agreed to settle the case and pay an award to Zachary and his mother.
The government upholds students’ rights in the classroom with “Zach’s rules”
In response to our lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Education unequivocally confirmed that students retain their free speech and religious liberty while in the classroom, , issuing official guidance in February 2003 that “students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.” At Becket, they’re known as “Zach’s Rules.”
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Education: Students don’t lose their First Amendment rights when they enter the classroom. Freedom of conscience includes the right to believe, express beliefs, and live according to one’s conscience in private and in public, at home and in school.
- Public Square: Because religion is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. Religious expression should not be treated as dangerous expression, scrubbed from society. It can, and should, have a place in the public square, including public schools.
- Free Speech: The First Amendment protects our right to speak freely on issues without fear of government censorship or punishment, even when, and especially when, that view is unpopular.