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ACLU Steps In When Tennessee After-School Program Allegedly Tells Student He Can't Read Bible

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On March 20, staff at Tennessee's Cannon County REACH after-school program reportedly told a student he was not allowed to read his Bible at school. If they let him read the Bible on school property, staff allegedly told the boy's mother, they ran the risk of being shut down by the state.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) stepped in when the student's mother contacted them, seeing in the case a clear misunderstanding of what the First Amendment of the Constitution really says about religious freedom.

As Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN legal director, outlined the case in a statement:

"The First Amendment exists to protect religious freedom. While this means that schools may not impose or promote religion, it also means that students can engage in religious activities that they initiate, provided they do not cause a disruption or interfere with the education of other students."

According to REACH director Linda Bewell, however, there was never a dispute over the Bible. As her staff informed her, the boy arrived to the program "already upset," having been in a fight earlier that day. When staff asked him to put his things away -- including his Bible -- Bedwell said the student would not comply.

"I've seen Bibles here before," Bedwell told The Huffington Post. "We don't encourage or deny anybody the right to bring their Bible to read."

ACLU-TN sent a letter to the Cannon County REACH after-school program based on what they saw as a "fundamental misunderstanding of the protections and guarantees of the First Amendment." The letter asked that the program acknowledge in writing their employees' obligation to protect students' religious freedom without imposing religion on them.

Public schools are not "religion-free zones" as many wrongly believe them to be, the letter says. Some schools fear that by making accommodations for students' religious beliefs they run the risk of going against the Constitution.

"Schools just don't understand what’s required of them,” Castelli told HuffPost.

But for Bedwell, this is a non-issue. "Our mission is to continue to ensure that we treat every child justly and fairly in everything," Bedwell told HuffPost. "As for discriminating against the Bible, that couldn’t be further from the truth."

Though it may be hard to parse out what really happened that afternoon, Castelli believes ACLU-TN's letter served its purpose. REACH responded to the letter saying there had been a misunderstanding but that they would give their staff a refresher on students' religious rights.

"No matter what really happened, the message is still just as important," Castelli said. "It sounds like they took it to heart."

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