Jury finds rights not violated in regard to recess study group
The Knox County school system did not violate a Karns Elementary School pupil’s constitutional rights when an issue arose over students reading and discussing the Bible during recess, a U.S. District Court jury ruled Thursday.
“I’m just glad it’s over,” said Cathy Summa, who was principal at Karns Elementary at the time of the episode. She was the focus of much of the trial testimony this week.
“This affirms that children can have and read their Bibles in school, as they can other appropriate materials,” added Summa, now retired.
Nate Kellum, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, did not agree. He said the situation remains too ambiguous for comfort and that an appeal of the verdict will be considered.
“We are disappointed in the verdict,” Kellum said. “We wanted a policy change, or a court ruling, and we still do not have either. We are still very much concerned that at any point in time, a school administrator can step in and say, ‘You can’t do that.’ “
ADF is an organization of Christian attorneys. Kellum was one of three ADF attorneys who represented Samuel and Tina Whitson, whose son Luke was a participant in the Bible discussion group in the 2004-05 school year.
The Whitsons declined to comment.
Longtime school board member Sam Anderson said he does not think the verdict should be viewed simply as a victory or a defeat for either side.
“Running a school system is difficult, and I think the jury saw that we did the best we could under the circumstances,” he said.
The Whitsons sought attorneys fees, a symbolic $1 in damages, and a finding that their son’s constitutional rights were violated.
They alleged that the Bible reading and discussion group, which consisted only of students, was arbitrarily shut down by Summa after a parent complained about it.
But attorneys for the school system maintained throughout the trial that it was all a misunderstanding, that what the students were doing on their own was not prohibited. They said pupils and parents were told that any adult-led class promoting any religion would not be allowed.
After the trial, defense attorneys Gary Prince and Alex Vogel said that before the lawsuit was filed, there was no policy in place that either allowed or disallowed what the pupils were doing, but that it was allowed under prior custom and practice.
After the lawsuit was filed, they said, a policy specifically allowing it was put into place.
Jim Balloch may be reached at 865-342-6315.
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