The Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom provides a regular accounting of censorship in public schools, libraries and other places. A publication of the American Library Association, it covers all the censors -- right, left, secular, religious, foolish and malign. Two years ago, the newsletter picked up a story from Moral Majority Report. In a Florida high school, the principal had ordered a photograph removed from all the newly printed yearbooks. The excisions were made with a razor. The picture was of a school Bible Club.
After 25 years of existence, the club had suddenly been disbanded on the advice of an attorney for the school board. Its presence in a public school, he said, was in violation of the separation of church and state. He would be right even now, despite last year's passage of the Equal Access bill, because there was an official school sponsor of that student Bible group. But the Constitution might have survived if the yearbook had not been defaced, though it did indeed include pictures of outlaws. The next year, after all, there would have been no Bible Club and no unconstitutional picture.
It was a splendid story for the Moral Majority, demonstrating once more to the faithful the lengths to which public school officials will go to stomp on religion.
Now Florida has come through again for Jerry Falwell. Last Dec. 20, on the front page of the Orlando Sentinel, there was a picture of a rather wistful 8-year-old, Olivia Myers. She held in her hand a greeting card. On the cover was a teddy bear. Inside were two stickers the size of postage stamps. One said, "Be Kind," and the other was a drawing of Jesus.
From money she had earned by getting good grades, Olivia had bought 28 of the cards (including the Jesus stickers). She took the cards to the Pine Crest Elementary School in Sanford to give to her classmates at a party on the last school day before Christmas. A dutiful girl, Olivia first asked her teacher, Arlene Cotton, if she could hand them out. The teacher said she'd check with higher authorities.
Upon being presented with this landmark problem in church-state relations, assistant principal Kathleen Procon banned the cards. The only recorded comment from Olivia is she felt "sad" that she could not give her friends the greeting cards in class. However, Olivia did find a way. As Lynn Osgood reported in the Orlando Sentinel, Olivia later handed out the cards "in the hallway and on the bus" on the way home.
Olivia's mother, Katrina Mendez, protested to school authorities that "it's ridiculous when you can't give a kid a 2-cent sticker because it has Jesus on it." What further exacerbated Mendez was that her daughter's teacher, Arlene Cotton, who is Jewish, had brought a menorah to class to instruct the children on the nature of Hanuka. It didn't look right, she felt, locking Jesus out, while in the classroom a candle on the menorah was being lit.
Indeed, according to reporter Lynn Osgood, "Olivia put her head on her desk and did not watch while Cotton lighted the candle because, she said, she was not allowed to hand out her cards."
Rob Morse, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, found these events rather disquieting because, he wrote, "there is a good deal of latent anti-Semitism in the United States and perhaps even more than average in Central Florida." Morse suggested that "everyone just relax a little."
What might help even more is a continuous in-service course for teachers and administrators on just where the line is in a public school between state and church. There are, to be sure, situations where the line is barely visible, particularly with the Supreme Court in its current "accommodating" mood toward religion. But in this case, the line is bright and clear.
Olivia is not the state. If the authorities were so apprehensive that the children might think their public school was endorsing the Jesus stickers, the teacher could have delivered a loud and clear disclaimer: "Children, these cards, including the Jesus sticker, are from Olivia. And Olivia only. They do not represent the opinions or beliefs of this teacher, this school, the state of Florida or these United States."
Olivia was right in bringing the cards to school. The teacher, Arlene Cotton, was also right in bringing in the menorah. The kids had asked her to because the Jewish religion is as exotic to most of them as the later works of John Coltrane. It is in no way unconstitutional to teach about religions in a public school.
When I told the story of Olivia to a civil liberties lawyer who tries to take no prisoners in his battles for separation of church and state, he groaned. He knows a good recruiting pitch when he hears one; and in the literature of those who want God sitting next to the principal in all public schools, the lawyer expects to hear about Olivia for a long time to come.