Salvation for Report on Bible

Dec 16, 2002 11:28 AM EST

LAFAYETTE - Pen and paper weren't enough for 11-year-old Elizabeth Johnson to do her book report.

She needed a lawyer.

Sixth-grade teachers at Peak to Peak Charter School initially rejected Elizabeth's choice of the biblical Book of Exodus for her report.

The Boulder Valley School District changed its stance after an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, which specializes in religious-freedom issues, threatened to bring a civil rights suit.

Elizabeth, a born-again member of First Baptist Church in Broomfield, said she wasn't trying to push her religion on the other students. She just likes the drama of Exodus.

"I just wanted to do how he (Moses) rescued the slaves, and how he was born," she said Thursday.

Robert Corry, the Denver-based attorney who represented Elizabeth, said schools can't discriminate against religious statements if they make an assignment involving expression.

"They have to treat religious speech the same way as every other (kind of) speech," Corry said.

School administrators and an attorney for the district did not return phone calls for comment.

But the attorney, Darcy Mohr, said in a letter to Corry that Elizabeth's choice was not rejected on religious grounds.

Mohr said teachers were concerned that the Bible would not meet requirements of the assignment, which requires students to describe their book's protagonist and setting. Students were also asked to discuss the relation between the picture on the cover of the book and the plot, Mohr said.

After further discussion, teachers were satisfied the Bible meets those standards, Mohr said.

But Elizabeth said teachers told her the Bible might offend students of different religions. She was told not even to bring her Bible to school, Elizabeth said.

Principal Bernita Grove modified the decision after a discussion with Elizabeth's mom, Kathleen Johnson. Grove ruled that Elizabeth could do a written report on the Bible, but could not deliver an oral report in class, like the other students.

That was "definitely" discrimination, Elizabeth said.

Kathleen Johnson said that she and Elizabeth forgive the school.

But, Johnson said, "I feel like all children have the right, in the United States, to talk about what's important to them in school. It's not right for people to say you need to keep that at home, you can't bring that with you wherever you go."

By Berny Morson