Ever hungry for a headline, Fox News contributor Todd Starnes has drummed up yet another controversy over religion in public schools. He recently took to his column to tell the tale of a Florida girl, 5-year-old Gabriella Perez, who had allegedly been told by her teacher that she could not pray over her lunch.
Starnes quoted the girl’s father, Marcos, who said, “A teacher saw her and told her, ‘you’re not allowed to do that.’” Perez claimed his daughter responded, “But it’s good to pray.’”
“It’s not good,” the teacher supposedly replied.
It’s a story custom-made for an entry in the Religious Right’s “War on Christianity.” The Perez family is now threatening the school with legal action if a public apology isn’t issued, and they’re being represented by the Liberty Institute. Starnes reported that in response to the alleged incident, the Perez family will now home-school Gabriella.
“This definitely pushed us over,” Perez said. “We’ve long had concerns about Common Core and issues and agendas we see in the culture war.”
Religious Right Bingo: Achieved.
But as usual, there’s more to the story than Starnes originally revealed in his column. According to officials at the Oveido, Fla., school district that Gabriella Perez attends, there’s actually no evidence that the incident as described by her father even happened.
Michael Lawrence, a communications officer for the school district told reporters, “The situation as stated by the parent has not occurred according to the school's investigation.” What’s more, school staff members have no recollection of interacting with the girl in the cafeteria that day.
“If a student wishes to pray at lunch to herself we do not have a policy against that,” Lawrence said, and added that the school would remind teachers that students do have a right to pray on their own in school.
There’s another twist that Starnes conveniently left out of his column. Marcos Perez is the vice president of sales at Charisma House, a Christian publisher. Charisma House is contracted to publish Starnes’ next book, God Less America.
Fox News has since added a note to the column acknowledging Starnes’ ties to Perez, but the column itself still makes no mention of the connection. It’s a telling omission on Starnes’ part, and it only adds to the dubious factuality of the alleged persecution of Gabriella Perez.
It also wouldn’t be the first time Starnes used his platform to unfairly attack a school district. Last December, he accused a Bulloch County, Ga., elementary school of removing Christmas cards from a public bulletin board. The school noted that there was more to the matter and explained in a press release that the cards in question were actually faculty Christmas cards that had been moved to a staff work room over privacy concerns.
Of course, public schools do sometimes get it wrong and unconstitutionally restrict a student’s religious expression. The ACLU’s Tennessee branch is currently representing the family of a student allegedly ordered to put his Bible away during a free reading period.
There’s evidence that there might be more to that story, too; school staff claim the student had been told to put all of his things away, not just the Bible, and he refused to comply.
Regardless, Thomas Castelli, ACLU-TN’s legal director, said, “Schools just don't understand what’s required of them.” But it’s actually quite simple.
Public school students do have the right to read religious materials during free reading periods, just as they have the right to pray privately during school hours. As we say often at Americans United, religion hasn’t been removed from the public schools. School teachers and staff just aren’t permitted to lead students in religious exercise, as they’re legally required to be neutral zones.
The controversies manufactured by Starnes and his ilk only serve to further obfuscate the issue. Our public schools, and our students, deserve better than that.