Mary Beth Faller, The Republic | azcentral.com 11:19 p.m. MST October 3, 2014
A debate over separation of church and state is playing out in the Peoria Unified School District, where a teacher was told to remove religious symbols from her classroom after a complaint by the national Freedom From Religion Foundation.
That decision prompted a Scottsdale-based non-profit group to warn the district not to overreach by prohibiting teachers from expressing their religious viewpoints.
At issue is just where in the classroom a Bible or other religious item is placed.
Andrew Seidel, an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said that Bibles kept inside a teacher's desk for personal reading outside of school hours are acceptable, but that Bibles or other religious items prominently displayed are not.
"The line can be hard to draw sometimes," he said. A teacher wearing a cross necklace is acceptable, but a shirt with a religious statement might not be.
But he said that in at least two Peoria classrooms, the Bibles and religious symbols were not in personal spaces.
"The courts have been pretty clear that teachers don't have First Amendment rights when they're acting as teachers," he said.
The Alliance Defending Freedom sees it another way. That group sent a letter to Peoria's governing board members and superintendent on Sept. 30 stating that teachers are allowed to have Bibles and scripture readings on their personal desks.
Jeremy Tedesco, an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said his group received a complaint from a Peoria teacher that employees were told that all religious items must be removed from personal spaces.
"We were notified that the district had overreached," Tedesco said Friday. "As we unfortunately see in these circumstances, the schools overreact and restrict more than is necessary.
"It's the search-and-destroy separation of church and state we see from secular groups like Freedom From Religion, and it's not the actual state of the law. Schools need to respect the constitutional rights of the teacher and students."
Erin Dunsey, spokeswoman for the Peoria district, said no letters were sent to employees from the district about removing religious items from personal spaces.
"Whether it came from a school level, we will have to see," she said Friday.
"We do train our staff every year on First Amendment protections so they are aware of what's allowed and what's not," she said.
Seidel said the Freedom From Religion Foundation has received several complaints from parents in the Peoria district, dating back to 2010.
Dunsey couldn't verify Friday that parents had complained to the district about this issue, but said all complaints, whether from parents, community members or organizations, are addressed.
Seidel provided copies of two letters his group sent to the Peoria district:
A May letter said a first-grade teacher at Parkridge Elementary School had a plaque on the wall reading "Jesus Loves The Little Children." Seidel said Peoria has not responded to that letter.
A December letter cited a classroom at Oakwood Elementary School that had Christian symbols on the wall, Bibles on a classroom bookshelf and a Thanksgiving celebration that featured students in the role of preachers.
An administrator in the Peoria district responded to the December letter, verifying that he visited the school, saw the Christian symbols on the wall and the Bibles. He said the items would be removed and any holiday celebrations would be vetted for content.
Dunsey said that each complaint would be addressed with the individual classroom teacher, and no district-wide letters would be sent.