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August 21 2014

Religious Liberty Update: Be Careful if a Classmate Sneezes

Patrice J. Lee

When a friend or co-worker sneezes, do you say “God bless you?”

If you’re a student in one Tennessee school, that courteous response will land you in disciplinary trouble for being disruptive.

The latest case of religious intolerance in schools comes from the South, long called the Bible Belt, where a high school senior said "bless you” after a classmate sneezed and her teacher kicked her out of the classroom for uttering a forbidden phrase and being disruptive.

The teenager contends she was just being courteous to a fellow student and exercising her constitutional rights to free speech and religious expression.

The local NBC affiliate reports:

A young girl, who claims she was standing up for her religious beliefs in the classroom, was suspended after breaking a class rule of saying "bless you" after a classmate sneezed.

When Dyer County High School senior Kendra Turner said bless you to her classmate, she says her teacher told her that was for church.

"She said that we're not going to have godly speaking in her class and that's when I said we have a constitutional right," said Turner.

Turner says when she defended her actions, she was told to see an administrator. She says she finished the class period in in-school suspension.

Students sent WMC Action News 5's Michael Clark a photo of the teacher's white board that lists 'bless you' and other expressions that are banned as part of class rules.

It sparked discussion with Turner's youth pastor Becky Winegardner last week at church.

"There were several students that were talking about this particular faculty member there that was very demeaning to them in regard to their faith," Winegardner said.

Turner's parents say the school leaders claim the outburst was a classroom distraction and that she shouted "bless you" across the room.

A local gazette captures the school’s response:

"We allow the teachers to set rules in the classroom that work best for them and I think that's fair," added [DCHS Assistant Principal Lynn] Garner. "We really stress what we call reasonable request. If a teacher asks his or her students to do something reasonable to avoid a distraction in the classroom, then we expect the students to follow the rules. If it's not a reasonable request then we'll sit down and talk about it to get it right."

In the incident on Monday, when the teacher, a 40-year respected veteran of the school system, stood up and asked which student made the 'bless you' comment, Turner acknowledged it was her who did so.

“She asked why I said it, and I told her I was being courteous and she asked me who told me that it was courtesy?" added Turner. "I told her my pastor and my parents taught me to say it."

" I think this has really been blown out of proportion on social media… I trust the teachers and beyond a shadow of a doubt all of our teachers have the students best interest at heart," added Garner.

The school will defend their faculty members. However, is placing the phrase “God Bless You” on a list of banned phrases along with “my bad,” “hang out,” “dumb,” “‘stupid,” and “stuff” a common sense action?  Banning expletives and discouraging slang or colloquiums is justifiable, but of the other phrases and words none of them had any religious connotation except "God bless you."

We won’t get into an analysis of “God bless you" and whether it is just a courtesy or a genuine expression of faith.

We do point out though that teachers and school administrators are often quick to ban behaviors and overreact to normal student behavior a manner that lacks common sense and good judgment. Part of the over sensitivity is the possibility of lawsuits.

Whatever the motives, more students should be –and in this case were – encouraged to be bold in taking a stand for religious liberty. It’s a lesson in civics. They are exercising their rights as guaranteed by the Constitution and doing so in a peaceful way.

The pressure that publicity will generate sends a good message that religious liberty is still a facet of American life.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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