TESTIMONY OF MARK D. BURTON Before House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution Field

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TESTIMONY OF MARK D. BURTON Before House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution Field Hearing in Tampa, Florida June 23, 1995 Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. I am grateful for this opportunity. My name is Mark Burton. I am here today before this committee because in March of this year my ten-year-old son Joshua was humiliated before his classmates by his teacher and principal from his local elementary school and both he and my daughter were kicked out of school over the simple action of my son bringing his Bible to class and reading it in his spare time. Joshua was told by his teacher that there was a separation of church and state and that it was not appropriate for him to bring his Bible to school. "If you were in a private school it would be different," the teacher explained, "but it's not. This is a public school." The next day he was pulled out of class and told by the principal of the school that he could bring his Bible to school but he was absolutely not to let anyone hear him reading it and he was not allowed to talk about it or share his faith. The very next day he brought this Bible to school and was reading it out on the courtyard before school time. Two children threatened to turn him in because according to what they had heard the principal say, what Joshua was doing was wrong. When Joshua got to class, he was told by his teacher that he had been reported for reading his Bible outside and that he would have to go to the office. My son was sent to the office and was made to sit facing the wall, where he stayed all day, not being allowed to attend his regular classes and not allowed to eat lunch with his classmates. I called the school and set an appointment to talk to the principal. I impressed on my son that there was nothing wrong with his Bible and that he could take his Bible to school if he wanted. As soon as he took his Bible back to school, it was confiscated from him by the school principal who came into the classroom during class time and demanded that Joshua relinquish his Bible to her. This was so upsetting and humiliating to my son that he began to cry. A child should never have to experience that kind of degradation at the hands of an adult. My son did nothing wrong. He only wanted to bring to school and read the cherished writing of his faith. He was made to feel like he was a terrible person for doing so, and the Bible was a terrible book. The kids in his class gathered around him to comfort him because he was so upset he was crying after the principal took his Bible. The teacher, expressing no sympathy at all, sent him out of the class and back to the office, where he stayed in detention for the rest of the day. For an hour and a half, Joshua was interrogated by the principal and four other adults. During that time, he was not allowed to call his parents, nor did the school attempt to call us. Joshua's mother and I arrived home that evening over two hours after Joshua had been dismissed from school, only to find our son extremely emotionally distraught and still crying. He was so unsettled by the events that had taken place that he was shaking all over and his mother and I had a difficult time calming him down. 2 I spoke to the school principal after these events, only to encounter extreme hostility. She told me that she was in charge of the kids from the time they got on the bus in the morning until they got off the bus in the afternoon and that she had full authority to determine what they could and could not do. She told me she didn't care if it was the Bible, the Koran, or whatever, students cannot read that kind of material at school. By her actions, she has created a very hostile environment for children of any faith. Children of faith should not have to go to school looking over their shoulder living in fear that they will be turned in and punished simply for expressing their faith or for reading material sacred to them. What I find the most disturbing is that this principal felt she was on very comfortable ground legally to do what she did. Personally I know this is not an isolated incident. When I was in high school, Christian kids from the school would meet together before class on the campus like many of the other social clubs would do. I faced ridicule from the principal and teachers because of my faith. At one point I was called into the office by the assistant principal who told me that we would have to give up meeting so much because, and I quote, "I do not want it to get around the community that I am allowing a 'prayer meeting' to go on on my campus." It seems to me that in this age where children are taught by the state school system that they must be tolerant of racial differences, tolerant of homosexuality, tolerant of political differences, and tolerant of cultural and language diversity, that this same system should be tolerant when it comes to religious freedom. 3 So Mr. Chairman, on behalf of many people such as Joshua and myself, I urge you to do whatever is within your power to secure for us a future tolerant to the people of faith, to ensure that the protection of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights is extended to include "we the people." Instead of an environment hostile to people of faith, we can create a society encompassing and embracing people and allowing them to express their beliefs without fear of reprisal. Thank you. 4


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