Who called sheriff on boy for sharing Bible?

by Diana Chandler, posted Tuesday, June 07, 2016 (one year ago)

PALMDALE, Calif. (BP) -- A public school superintendent told Baptist Press he has been unable to discover why a deputy sheriff visited the home of a first-grade boy to warn him not to share Scripture with classmates at a school in the superintendent's district.

Religious freedom advocates Liberty Counsel contacted Palmdale School District Supt. Raul Maldonado after a Los Angeles deputy sheriff visited the home of Christina and Jaime Zavala, whose child was cautioned this spring about sharing with classmates written Scripture notes his mother had put in his lunchbox.

While Maldonado doesn't deny that a sheriff's deputy visited the Zavala home in relation to the Scripture notes, he told BP the school has been unable to determine why such a visit occurred.

"We really should not discuss or identify individual students, parents or teachers without their consent, so I cannot talk about the family and teachers you have mentioned," Maldonado said in response to BP's June 6 information request. "However I can tell you, we have not been able to identify anyone at any level at the school in question who called the sheriff and asked for a visit to a child's home about this matter."

Several pastors were slated to hold a press conference at noon Pacific Time today (June 7) on the steps of Desert Rose Elementary School in Palmdale to address the issue.

Paul Chappell, pastor of Lancaster [Independent] Baptist Church in Palmdale, released an advance copy of his prepared comments to BP.

"If in fact this 7-year-old child was reprimanded for sharing his Bible verses and notes, we believe the staff involved need training regarding the educational codes and a reminder that we do not bully or demean students," Chappell said. "As faith and community leaders, we believe it is vital for people of all faiths that the district provide assurances that the children's constitutional rights are upheld."

Liberty Counsel gave the school an ultimatum in a May 24 letter and follow-up communication, according to Liberty Counsel founder and president Mathew Staver.

"Having reviewed the … facts, District policies, and applicable law, it is clear that the actions of District staff in this instance, in prohibiting voluntary student religious expression during non-instructional time; then completely banning such student expression from school property entirely; and finally calling the police to report the same are simply unconstitutional," reads the letter posted at Liberty Counsel's website. "These actions must be disavowed and reversed, to avoid liability for civil rights violations."

Incidents surrounding the dispute date back to April 18 when, according to Liberty Counsel, Christina Zavala received a call from her son's first-grade teacher who expressed concern because a student said to her, "Teacher, this is the most beautiful story I have ever seen -- [the 7-year-old boy] gave it to me." The teacher, unnamed in the letter, told Christina, "Please tell your son that there is a separation of church and state."

The teacher on at least two occasions reprimanded the boy in front of his classmates causing him to shed tears, Liberty Counsel said. On May 9, while the student was handing out notes with his father Jaime Zavala who had come to get him at the end of the school day, "Principal Pagliagro approached," Liberty Counsel said, "and ordered them to stop handing out the notes, because it was 'against school policy.'" The father and child complied with the principal's instruction to limit the note distribution to a nearby sidewalk, Liberty Counsel said.

But at 4:30 p.m. on May 9, a deputy sheriff knocked on the family's door and stated "that the school had called him to report that [the student] and his parents had been sharing papers at school; and that this was not permitted because 'someone might be offended,'" Liberty Counsel's letter reads.

The school does not prohibit religious speech among students but does require approval of written materials before distribution, Maldonado told BP.

"We are strongly committed to our religious liberty and at no time is any student prohibited from talking about or discussing Scripture with anyone during their school day on or off campus," Maldonado said June 6. "There is only a policy regarding the distribution of written material without prior review by the school."

Liberty Counsel is prepared to take the issue to court, said Staver, who also expressed concern for the child's psychological health.

"When a 7-year-old boy gets a visit by a law enforcement officer it imprints a shocking memory in his mind," Staver told BP. "I cannot imagine how he is processing this visit, and how he is processing the fact that he was reprimanded in class by his teacher for sharing a Bible story about Joseph. This is outrageous and we intend to correct this horrible act by the teacher and the principal."

Chappell, who leads a ministry to law enforcement officers, told BP that the deputy sheriff who visited the home was courteous to the Zavalas and displayed excellence in his duties.

"Our primary concern today is to stand for the religious liberty of a 7-year-old student of this school," Chappell said. "We are encouraged by a child who believes in the powerful truths of Jesus Christ and desires to share with friends. We are praying for the Zavalas as they endure this difficult time for their faith."

Chappell expected to be joined at today's press conference by the Zavalas' pastor, Sean Appleton of Hope Chapel in nearby Lancaster; elected officials; educational leaders and others.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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