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May 21, 2004 - Image 5

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-05-21

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Divine Debate


s a biblical verse in a school yearbook in violation of the
than taking a longer view of life.
"separation of church and state" doctrine?
If precedent matters, an entry in the 1998 Stevenson year-
No, thank God.
book also mentioned God — though in a generic sense.
And thanks also to the American Civil Liberties
When her -class yearbook was published in October 2001,
Union of Michigan, an unlikely partner in this debate.
Moler found her photo and a list of her activities, but not her
The ACLU is better known for monitoring school officials
invited entry. Only after she and her mother complained did
so they remain neutral in matters of religion. But in this case,
they learn that school staff had censored the biblical verse, cit-
it intervened on behalf of Abbey Moler, the 2001 valedictori-
ing the separation doctrine.
an at Stevenson High School in Sterling Heights.
After researching legal options, the family decided to seek
Moler is Christian, but the free speech principles she has
help from the ACLU a few months later. ACLU of Michigan
championed against the Utica Community School District
Legal Director Michael Steinberg cut to the core: "While it is
resonate for me. She's 21 now and an
true that the Constitution forbids public schools to promote
Oakland University senior hoping to become
religion, schools must be careful not to suppress the private
a teacher.
religious expression of students. In this case, a high school
The top-achieving graduates in the Class of purported to create an open forum for student expression, yet
2001 were profiled in a two-page spread of
censored a student's speech because it was religious in nature."
the Stevenson yearbook. As part of the
spread, they were
Coming To Grips
invited to share a
thought or advice
Moler amplified this point in speaking to radio host Mitch
ROBERT A. with underclass-
Albom of WJR 760 AM in Detroit last week. `Although
men. The invita-
schools are not allowed to promote establishment of religion,
tion carried net
meaning indoctrination or the preference of one religion over
restriction. The
another," she said on the air, "students are allowed to share
ACLU contended the spread was a
their individual personal beliefs.
"limited public forum."
"And I wanted to clarify that in society."
Unless you were aligned with the
Moler showed great maturity in not allowing this one inci-
American Atheists, there's no possi-
dent to color her larger view of the Utica Community
ble way to confuse this forum of
School District. Despite the yearbook slight, she called her
personal student reflection with
high school education wonderful. And this fall,
school-sponsored speech.
she'll be a student teacher in the district at
On May 11, the ACLU
Eisenhower High School.
announced an out-of-court settle-
Moler called the 2 1 /2-year-old case an educa-
ment between the school district
tional experience in itself.
and Moler. The Macomb County resident didn't seek
"I've learned so much from this case — just
money, rather just righting the wrong and spotlighting
about the legal process and how slow it is and
the situation to help protect others from similar censor-
just how to speak with people," she told Albom.
For its part, the school district agreed to apol-
"My personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the
ogize to Moler, put a sticker with her original
foundation of who I am, and the publication of my
entry in copies of the yearbook kept at
verse is critical to preserving student expression and First Mitch Albom
Stevenson, tell the yearbook staff not to censor
Amendment rights," Moler said as the ACLU
student entries solely because of religious or
announced the settlement.
political content, and counsel school staff about free speech
"Now that I am entering the teaching profession," she
and religious freedom.
added, "I wanted to do my part in maintaining excellence in
The ACLU acknowledged that schools have the right and
public education."
responsibility to take a hard look at speech when the safety or
Moler, a National Honor Society member, chose a biblical
security of students and staff become compromised, when lan-
verse that touched her. Her entry read: "I would like to share a
guage is lewd, or when drugs and alcohol are encouraged.
favorite verse that shapes my life and guides me from day to
Speech substantially interfering with the work of the school or
day: `For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord,
impinging on student rights also may be restricted.
`plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you
In closing his May 14 segment with Moler, Albom spoke
hope and a future.'" (Jeremiah 29:11)
from the heart in observing how the roots of this case proved
Jeremiah was a biblical prophet. At issue is unwarranted
to be an example of the separation doctrine run amok.
school censorship of a verse that makes reference to God.
"Hats off to you for sticking with something you believe
The verse is religious, but so what?
in," he told Moler. "I'm a staunch defender frequently of sepa-
A student was simply responding to a school district invita-
rations of church and state, but I see absolutely nothing
tion to include in her yearbook profile a personal view; the
wrong with what is actually a beautiful sentence from a bibli-
message she chose happened to be religious in nature. This
cal verse.
doesn't compare with inviting clergy members to offer prayers
"And it's your sentiment. If that's what you want to have,
at, say, public school graduation ceremonies.
more power to you."
As a Jew, I don't find the yearbook entry choice offensive. I
Abbey Moler didn't cave in to the rough-and-tumble of
find it laudable. It was an impressive choice for a teenager liv-
legal wrangling and never wavered defending her religious
ing in a world where spiritual embrace too often isn't consid-
conviction. She painstakingly worked through the system —
ered hip. It beats an expression with little or no substance or
and won. And she didn't gloat.
sense of discovery, an expression playing to the moment rather
There's a lesson in that for Jews and gentiles alike. ❑


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