A debate over religion in public schools is once again brewing in Encinitas after the family of a fourth grader hired an attorney to ensure their grandson could read the Bible in class.
Noah McMahon, a special needs student with Down syndrome, has attended La Costa Heights Elementary School since 2009 under an individualized education program.
But during a meeting between Noah’s teacher and his grandparents Craig and Lori Nordal on Nov. 6, the topic of “free reading time” came up.
The Nordals said they would like Noah to be able to bring his Bible for the half hour period of reading, but two district officials told them the book would not be allowed because it is religious, according to Dean Broyles, an attorney with the conservative Christian nonprofit firm the National Center for Law and Policy.
“Often you will see an administrative knee-jerk reaction with teachers saying separation between church and state, you can’t have God here, you can’t have the Bible here,” said Broyles, who is representing the Nordals.
Encinitas Union School District Superintendent Timothy B. Baird said that is simply not the case.
“At no time did any of our staff deny the child the right to bring his bible to school and read it during free time reading,” he wrote in a statement.
Instead, Baird says the grandparents were asking the teacher to use the Bible as a main teaching tool, which the district told them they could not do because the book did not fall into the specific curricular tools used for Noah’s educational goals. Broyles told NBC 7 that is not what the Nordals were asking.
The day after the meeting, Baird says the staff sent a letter to the Nordals, saying Noah could bring his Bible. He has done so for three straight days without anyone stopping him, according to the superintendent.
“The family and Mr. Broyles know this, so I am somewhat confused by their claims and all the media attention that this is getting,” said Baird.
On Nov. 7, the National Center for Law and Policy sent a legal demand letter to the district, accusing the administration of violating Noah’s civil rights to religious free speech and the free exercise of religion.
The center says legal action will be taken unless the district sends out a formal apology to Noah and agrees to permit students to read religious books, including the Bible, during free reading times.
This is not the first legal dispute between the National Center for Law and Policy and the EUSD.
Last year, the center filed a civil rights lawsuit against the district’s city-wide yoga curriculum, calling it “inherently and pervasively religious.” A San Diego judge later ruled in favor of the EUSD, but it is currently being appealed.