James J. Kilpatrick

What are the free-speech rights of a 5-year-old? A short and sensible answer would place his rights at plus or minus zero, but today we're talking constitutional law. The lad's rights may be larger than you think.

If the Supreme Court takes the case of young Antonio Peck, the justices will try once more to clarify the murky waters of the First Amendment. The case turns on the Constitution's clause guaranteeing the "free exercise" of religion. How free? By whom? Under what circumstances?

The facts are not seriously in dispute. Toward the end of the 1999-2000 school year, Antonio was enrolled in a kindergarten class at Catherine McNamara Elementary School in Baldwinsville, N.Y., a suburb of Syracuse. The class was taught by Susan Weichert under the general supervision of the principal, Robert Creme.

Weichert testified by deposition that the kindergarten curriculum included a two-month unit focusing upon "simple ways to save the environment, such as preserving trees and animals, using natural resources wisely, and keeping the environment clean." The unit culminated in May with a project: The children would make posters depicting what they had learned about the environment. There would be a closing assembly. A tree would be planted, environmental songs would be sung, and the posters would be displayed.

Weichert sent some instructions home to parents. The posters should depict "ways to save our environment, i.e., pictures of the earth, water, recycling, trash, etc." Antonio was not yet reading on his own, so his mother, JoAnne Peck, sat down with him one evening and together they pasted up an environmental poster. According to her deposition, the child said that "the only way to save the environment was through Jesus." Their poster thus depicted a robed Jesus in prayer and two children on a rock labeled "Savior." A legend read, "God keeps His promises."

Antonio took his poster to school the next day. It was not a hit. Weichert ruled that the poster had nothing to do with the environmental material the children had studied. Mrs. Peck took it up with principal Creme. He suggested that the boy try again, this time with a poster that could depict recycling, kids picking up trash, and maybe "a little bit of religious content."

Mother and child went back to the drawing board. Their second effort depicted the same praying Jesus and a church with a cross, but it also included "pictures of people picking up trash and placing it in a recycling can, of children holding hands and encircling the globe, and of clouds, trees, a squirrel, and grass."

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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