Apple Valley, California, a small community of about 70,000 residents, lies on the southern edge of the Mojave Desert. This desert community is best known for being the home of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (my younger readers should just wiki them), and their museum was originally established in Apple Valley. Among the town’s elementary schools is the Desert Knolls Elementary School, where third grader Steven Peterson, age 8, and his brother, fourth grader Patrick Peterson, age 10, attend. They are two sweet and lovely young boys who love the Lord Jesus Christ, and want their classmates to know Him as well. As a result, the boys have sometimes handed out coins that quote two Bible verses: John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.) and John 3:36 (“He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”) The reverse side of the coin asks the important question, “Where will you spend eternity?”
On a number of occasions during 2013 and 2014, teachers reprimanded the boys for bringing their Bible coins to school. Patrick’s teacher, Mrs. Stormy DeHaro, said she “hated” the coins, and told Patrick not to bring the coins to school again. Steven’s third grade teacher, Mrs. Julie Manker, noticed the coins in his St. Valentine’s Day cards for all of his classmates. Ms. Manker then removed the coins from each child’s St. Valentine’s Day card, placing the coins in a zip-locked bag with a note for his parents saying that the coins were “in violation of the Ed Code,” and returned them to Steven. Steven said that he felt sad after this St. Valentine’s Day incident. Ms. Manker said that she believed that bringing the coins with Bible verses violated state law. Of course, that view is wrong, even in California. In fact, Ms. Manker’s conduct violated the California Constitution’s free speech clause, and free exercise and enjoyment of religion clause, and even violated the California Education Code section 220, which provides that no person shall be subjected to discrimination on the basis of their religion.
Then adding insult to injury, the school principal, Mrs. Crystal Schinhofen, failed to address the discriminatory behavior by the teachers, and unlawfully insisted “that she must be informed in advance of any religious items being distributed on campus.” (How stupid do you have to be to be an elementary school principal in California? But I digress.) As a result of their conduct, the Peterson family sought legal advice, and the boys were represented by William Becker of Freedom X (www.freedomxlaw.com), a Los Angeles-based public interest law firm. Following the allegations, the school district investigated, and on April 4, 2014, issued its long, confidential report, available here. The investigators determined that the school teachers did in fact violate the boys’ First Amendment constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of religion. (It looks to me that the investigation and preparation of this confidential report cost the taxpayers of California lots of money based upon the numerous interviews. Oh, and if you read the report, you can see just how sweet and loving the boys are.) Although the investigation did suggest a number of remedial and corrective steps for the teachers, none of the recommended corrective actions call for discipline against Mrs. DeHaro, Mrs. Manker, or Mrs. Schinhofen. District Superintendent Thomas E. Hoegerman wrote in a letter to Attorney Becker that the results of the investigation:
make it clear that although no violation of the children’s rights was intended, a teacher was mistaken as to obligations under the law. I can assure the Petersons that corrective actions are underway. The District will use the finding as a learning opportunity to teach staff about the rights and obligations of the students at school and provide guidance as to how to support student rights to freedom of expression at school, including religious expression.
It is good that the school district admitted that it was wrong. However, in this post-Mozilla world, it seems to me that it is completely appropriate that the two teachers and the principal should be immediately terminated from their positions for their thuggish behavior in violating the constitutional rights of Steven and Patrick Peterson, and for wasting California taxpayer money. Only in this way can the district teachers truly be forewarned, in the words of Superintendant Hoegerman, to “support student rights to freedom of expression at school, including religious expression.” In this Holy Week, may God continue to richly bless the Peterson family. Great job, Mr. Becker, in defending and protecting the fundamental constitutional rights of these boys. For eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. And shame on you, Mrs. Stormy DeHaro, Mrs. Julie Manker, and Mrs. Crystal Schinhofen for what you have tried to do to these young boys.