A first-grade teacher at a public elementary school in Southern California allegedly snatched a bunch of candy canes bearing a brief religious message from a first-grade boy. She told the poor kid “Jesus is not allowed in school” and then — right in front of his little six-year-old eyes — ripped the religious messages from each candy cane and dumped them in a trashcan.
The boy’s name is Isaiah Martinez. He attends Merced Elementary School in the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina.
The first-grade teacher accused of religious bullying is Valerie Lu. One of the candy canes was for her. The rest were for Martinez’s classmates.
Lu conferred with school principal Gordon Pfitzer before somehow deciding that partially destroying a kid’s religious candy canes in front of him would be an intelligent, decent thing for a human being to do.
The candy canes were for a holiday party—the kind virtually every grade-school kid in America experiences just before winter break. Each candy cane came attached with a message about how the Christmas-associated peppermint treat was originally a symbol of the life of Jesus Christ.
Martinez’s older sister, Alexandra Cantu, helped the boy put the candy canes and the messages together. She told CBS Los Angeles that her little brother was pretty upset about what happened.
“He was like, ‘Yeah, but my teacher took the letters off and threw them in the trash. And I had to give it to them without the letters,'” Cantu explained.
School officials eventually let Martinez hand out full versions of his religious-themed candy canes—off campus, at the end of the day on the last day of school, while all the kids were scurrying home for break.
On Monday, Robert H. Tyler, an attorney with a California-based nonprofit law firm called Faith & Freedom, released a demand letter on behalf of Martinez. Tyler called the actions of the teacher, the principal and the school district “hostile and intimidating.”
In a statement, Tyler noted that religious bullying by teachers and administrators is a big and burgeoning problem.
“The pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that public schools are becoming a place of hostility toward Christian and other religiously-based worldviews,” the statement said.
In the lengthy demand letter, Tyler explains that other students in Isaiah’s class handed out Christmas gifts to classmates with no problems. The packaging on those gifts included imagery such as Santa Claus, penguins with Santa hats and Christmas trees.
He also explains basic First Amendment law as it applies to kids expressing themselves in school. He quotes a 2007 Supreme Court case: “Student expression may not be suppressed unless school officials reasonably conclude that it will ‘materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”
It’s not clear how the distribution of candy canes would materially and substantially disrupt a school holiday party.
Tyler’s letter also observes that California law accords students even broader speech protections than the protections afforded under the federal First Amendment.
The letter demands a new school district-wide policy prohibiting teachers and school officials from treating religious students unequally, prejudicially or with hostility. It also seeks a written apology.
Tyler additionally asks the West Covina Unified School District to provide teachers and school officials with remedial First Amendment training “particularly as it relates to the rights of students to express themselves with religious viewpoints.”
Faith & Freedom has set a Jan. 13 deadline for the West Covina school district to comply with its demand letter.
On Monday, reports CBS Los Angeles, school district superintendent superintendent Debra Kaplan released a statement saying: “At the present time, we do not have any reason to believe that the teacher or any other district employee had any intention other than to maintain an appropriate degree of religious neutrality in the classroom and to communicate this to the child in an age-appropriate manner.”