PHILADELPHIA -- The parents of an elementary school pupil who are suing the suburban Owen J. Roberts School District because their daughter was prevented from giving a paper on "the power of God" say the issue is one of freedom of speech, not religion.
"The reason we're going through this is to protect our rights and the rights of people like us," said Ernest Duran, father of Diana Duran, who begins sixth grade at East Coventry Elementary School next month.
"The issue is our daughter's freedom of speech and education," added her mother, Diane Duran.
The suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on behalf of Diana Duran, alleges that a teacher and principal at East Coventry Elementary School in Chester County denied her her rights by refusing to allow her to present her report to the class. The suit was filed against the Owen J. Roberts School District and several officials.
Ernest Duran said the suit is designed to protect students' rights not to be restricted in their academic pursuits. His daughter had prepared the report as part of a three-month research assignment given to members of the fifth-grade Academically Talented Program.
Although the school district had not been officially served with the suit Tuesday, solicitor James Scheffey was handed a copy of the complaint by the Durans' attorney, William Bonner, after Monday night's meeting of the Owen J. Roberts school board. Scheffey said neither he nor members of the board would comment until they had reviewed the document.
"The matter has to be investigated to determine what took place when the alleged event occurred," Scheffey said this week.
According to the complaint, teacher Linda Nitsche assigned her class the research project in March and the following month approved -- in writing -- Diana Duran's topic.
Part of the project involved the distribution of a survey, and as of June 8, Diana had distributed 25 surveys that included the question "Do you believe in God?" Another part of the survey asked students to complete a sentence that began "I believe in God's power to" with one of four choices: "control my life," "control life and death," "forgive sin" and "other."
After seeing a copy of the survey, according to the complaint, principal Kenneth Swart notified Diana that she could not distribute any more surveys because "the questions were going too deep into religion" and "the school ran the risk of being sued."
Diana was told that she could present her report to Nitsche in private, but not to the entire class.