- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

School officials in upstate New York will go to federal court today to battle a lawsuit that blocks them from silencing a 5-year-old girl who says grace before her kindergarten snack of cupcakes and milk.
The controversy began Jan. 15 when teacher Lori Maragno hushed Kayla Broadus for saying, "God is good. God is great. Thank you, God, for my food."
Board officials later declared in a letter and press release that the child was prohibited from praying aloud in school. Kayla's mother, Cheryl Broadus, responded by filing a lawsuit Feb. 1 with help from civil rights lawyer Thomas J. Marcelle.
The case will be heard today before U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd in Utica, N.Y.
However, Saratoga Springs School District lawyer Gregg T. Johnson appeared to change the board's position in a telephone interview yesterday. He said his clients now want to settle what is becoming a national embarrassment and concedes that Kayla may pray aloud if she avoids disrupting her 19 classmates during instruction.
"As long as her silent or audible prayer does not delay the class or disturb the class they have no intention of intruding on her ability to say prayers," Mr. Johnson said.
"They certainly haven't said that in legal papers," said Mr. Marcelle, who was recruited by the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, which litigates civil liberty issues. "It would make eminent sense to resolve it if the school is really sincere about their intent to let Kayla express her thankfulness to God for her food, but the school has been all over the map in respect to what Kayla can and can't do."
On March 27, the local newspaper, the Saratogian, quoted School Board President M. Sandra Lewis as saying the Rutherford Institute lawyers and Mrs. Broadus "are using a child to make a political point."
"I've not made that charge," Mr. Johnson said yesterday, "but I would say the speed with which we went from intervention in the kindergarten class, to a threatening letter from the Rutherford Institute, to a federal lawsuit, to a media campaign, makes me wonder."
A temporary restraining order obtained Feb. 5 by Mr. Marcelle has continued by mutual consent. The hearing today will be the school officials' first chance to tell their story to Judge Hurd, who will decide whether to continue the temporary order.
Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead said school officials were under the impression that the child's prayer involved government in a religious issue even though it involved no "state action."
"Saratoga Springs school officials claim the Constitution requires them to be alert to personal student discussions and immediately censor any student expression that appears religious," Mr. Whitehead said. "In fact, the Constitution requires the opposite."
Sticking points to a possible settlement include a request for $50,000 in punitive damages by Kayla's mother, attorneys' fees for the "prevailing party" in a civil rights case, and a political split over the issue in the community.
"Attorney fees would have to be part of it but I think we could work around that," Mr. Marcelle said. "What Mrs. Broadus wants is what counts."
"There's no money at issue here as far as I'm concerned," Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson contends that the prayer and Kayla's hand-holding with a few classmates occurred during a reading lesson, although Miss Maragno swore she hadn't begun reading.
"Shortly after the snack was handed out on January 15, 2002, as I was about to begin reading the story, I noticed Kayla holding the hands of students assigned to sit next to her at the table," the teacher's sworn statement said.
Lawyers for both sides say there is no indication Miss Maragno could hear the words of Kayla's prayer.
After school principal Debra Winters consulted with lawyers, one of them wrote a letter that said, "Please be advised that Kayla will not be permitted to ask other students to join her in prayer prior to snacktime or lunchtime. Kayla is certainly free to silently say her prayer before a snack or lunch."


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