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Law firm accuses school district of civil rights violation

ENCINITAS — The law firm that is suing the Encinitas Union School District for teaching yoga in class is at it again, this time accusing the district of violating a 4th grade boy’s civil rights by not allowing him to read the Bible during free reading time.

The National Center for Law & Policy claims that two district administrators told the grandparents of Noah McMahon, a 4th grader at La Costa Heights Elementary, he could not bring his Bible during the 30-minute free reading period at school.

School district officials said they are miffed by the accusations, because they have allowed the boy to read his Bible, but denied a request by the boy’s grandparents to be taught using his Bible.

“This is a weird one, we don’t know why they are making a fuss over this,” said Encinitas Union school Superintendent Timothy Baird. “This seems like a publicity stunt.”

According to a news release from the conservative law group, the incident occurred on Nov. 6 when the grandparents, Lori and Craig Nordal — who care for Noah, who has Down’s Syndrome — discussed the topic of free reading time with his special education teacher, Shelley Hirshberg and the district’s head of special education Jamie Salter.

“In response, Lori Nordal offered, ‘I would like him to bring his Bible,'” according to a news release. “Immediately, two district officials, almost in unison, responded, ‘No, that’s religious, it is not allowed!'”

The cease-and-desist letter written by the National Center goes on to say that Craig Nordal told the two teachers that he was sure the boy could bring any book of his choosing, and Salter again reiterated her position on religious literature in class.

The Nordals contacted the National Center, which delivered the cease-and-desist letter to the district the following day. The letter gives the district 10 days to apologize to the Nordals and allow students to read the book of their choosing during free reading time.

“Students do not surrender their constitutional rights when they enter public schools,” said Dean Broyles, National Center for Law & Policy’s chief counsel. “We fully expect that Encinitas Union School District officials, if they follow the law, will resolve this civil rights violation amicably and promptly. Without an apology and confirmation that EUSD students will be allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights by being permitted to read religious books like the Bible during free reading times, our client is prepared to take legal action. As of today, the National Center for Law & Policy has not received a formal response from EUSD to its demand letter, but we expect one very soon.”

Baird said neither Hirshberg nor Salter said the boy could not read his Bible, and he said the boy has read his book each day since the meeting. The Nordals, however, made a request that the district teach their son using the Bible, which the teachers refused.

“They agreed with the grandparents, that the boy was allowed to read the Bible,” Baird said. “But he is on a strict (special education) program, it would not be appropriate for his primary curriculum.”

Baird said he believes the law firm is exaggerating the story as retribution for the district’s legal victory in the yoga case.

“It just seems like sour grapes,” he said.

The National Center for Law & Policy recently filed an appeal of a judge’s ruling that the school district’s yoga program was on safe legal ground and does not violate the “establishment clause” of the Constitution because it did not promote any religious doctrine.

Broyles has contended that the school district, by teaching yoga, is essentially endorsing or promoting religion in a school-sponsored setting. He said that the Constitution’s establishment clause, however, does not extend to private citizens, and a student reading a religious book in class does not violate the so-called separation of church and state because the state is not taking a position on the reading material. The letter cites several cases in support of the center’s stance.