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OPINION | April Wallace: Free books can’t come with religious strings attached

‘Just a book’ is really more by April Wallace | March 9, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.
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As I was picking up my preschooler from class one afternoon, he was excited to show off a new book that apparently he could keep. He announced that he and only he would be holding "101 Dalmatians" all the way home and probably for the rest of the day, too.

Performing my motherly duty, I asked him if he had already thanked his teacher for the unexpected, generous gift. "Oh it wasn't from us; it was from the church," she said. That's when my jaw dropped open. Then the new bookmark fell out.

My son was excited about that too, since it's rare for him to have his own bookmark. This one bore the local church's name, saying that the church loves you and conveniently listing its address and service times.

Stunned, I didn't say anything in the moment; I might have managed an astute "uh huh."

We walked around to pick up my older son -- and he too had a free book and matching church bookmark. Not sure what to make of it, I carried on with our routine. We went home for snacks and homework, started dinner and caught up with my husband when he came home.

Finally, it was beginning to set in. I showed him the books and bookmarks. Our boys attend a public school, and we'd had exactly zero reason to expect volunteers from a local church were coming to speak with them.

If I hadn't prompted my kid to say thank you, I might never have known that it happened at all. That didn't sit well with me.

As a mother of a kindergartener and a preschooler, I'm new to the business of having young children in public school, but aren't there rules that keep religious activities and materials largely out of schools? I wondered.

We'd had zero notice beforehand and no ready information about what those volunteers said and did after the fact, so it left a lot to the imagination.

Between picking up my children and the school principal calling me back the following day, I learned a few basic things about state laws concerning religion in schools.

Not surprisingly, many laws have more to do with not encroaching on an individual's religious freedoms while they attend school. There are laws around wearing religious symbols in clothing and on jewelry, about prayer, Bible clubs and Bible curriculum on school property.

Overall, though, there is a lot less wiggle room for those activities to happen in elementary schools. My guess is that distinction has something to do with children being more impressionable at these ages. By the teenage years, kids have had more time to be exposed to their family's belief system and hopefully are starting to form their own.

For my husband and me, it's not the church we're against. He grew up with no church home and sometimes wishes he'd been raised with faith. I grew up in a budding mega church that was a popularity breeding ground I dreaded attending.

No, it's not the church itself that we're against. It's any sneaky attempt to guide our children to one faith or another while we're not present with them. Friendly folks who give my 4- and 5-year-old free books are people they're going to listen to.

A couple of calls later, it became clear that the books given out were secular, the volunteers didn't invite them to religious services (aside from providing the times of kids' worship on the bookmarks) and the books they read to classes were also secular.

Am I overreacting? I asked myself a time or two. Then later I thought, "No, definitely not." I'm not the only one who treasures my religious freedom. And my kids have that right, too.

Print Headline: Religious freedom on the line


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