By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
Amber Mangum was a frequent reader during lunch breaks at her Prince George's County middle school, silently soaking up the adventures of Harry Potter and other tales in the spare minutes before afternoon classes. The habit was never viewed as a problem -- not, a lawsuit alleges, until the book she was reading was the Bible.
A vice principal at Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School in Laurel last month ordered Amber, then 12, to stop reading the Bible or face punishment, according to a lawsuit filed Friday by Amber's mother. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, alleges that the vice principal's actions violated the girl's civil rights.
"Amber's a new Christian, and she's trying to learn all she can," said Maryann Mangum, the girl's mother. "She reads her Bible and she goes to Sunday school. . . . It really upset me when she was not allowed to read it on her own time."
John White, a spokesman for the school system, said administrators learned of the lawsuit Friday and were not prepared to comment on its claims. "We're just beginning to look into it," he said.
Mangum said her daughter was reading her Bible on Sept. 14 when Vice Principal Jeanetta Rainey approached. According to Mangum and the lawsuit, Rainey told Amber that reading the Bible violated school policy and that she would face discipline if she continued to do so.
Later that day, Amber recounted the episode to Mangum, who is her adoptive mother and also her biological grandmother. James Baker, a family friend, sent a note to the school asking that the principal identify any policy barring students from reading the Bible during their free time.
The note quoted a section of the school system's administrative procedures, saying that 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 principal, Charoscar Coleman, did not respond, the lawsuit says. A friend at Mangum's church suggested that Mangum contact the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit legal organization specializing in cases that involve issues of religious and civil liberties.
The institute's president, John W. Whitehead, said yesterday that the law is clear and that Amber's rights were violated. He said the lawsuit does not specifically seek monetary damages but rather that a judge declare that students cannot be barred from reading the Bible during free time at school.
"This is a seventh-grader who's probably overwhelmed by what's going on around her," Whitehead said. "This is a chance for her to get some comfort during the day. . . . What would you rather have a kid doing, throwing spit wads or sitting there silently reading a few passages from the Bible?"