An Object Lesson on Church and State : In Orange County a public school teacher adds biblical quotes to school yearbook

Public schools, which are open to everyone regardless of race, creed, color or religious beliefs, must be sanctuaries for religious freedom. Yet this simple protection repeatedly is ignored by those who would try to impose their beliefs on others.

The Buena Park Junior High School yearbook adviser who took it upon himself to sprinkle the school's yearbook with biblical quotes said he meant to teach students morality by including "words of wisdom" from the Old and New testaments of the Bible. School officials say that the teacher, Phillip Fivgas, surreptitiously inserted the quotes after two vice principals had approved the yearbook for printing. Included were such quotes as this, in the awards section of the yearbook: "The wrong things the sinful self does are clear: being sexually unfaithful, not being pure, taking part in sexual sins, worshiping false gods, doing witchcraft . . . those who do these things will not be in God's Kingdom." Other quotes appeared throughout the 76-page yearbook.

Fivgas himself was unrepentant about what he had done. A born-again Christian, he said he wanted the verses in the yearbook because "they are in my heart all the time." But that is where he should have kept them, at least during school hours. Buena Park Junior High is a multiethnic school with children who have been raised in many different religious beliefs. Their parents must decide their religious training.

When the yearbook verses were discovered, the school district sought the advice of three lawyers and the attorney for the Orange County Education Department. All agreed the yearbooks illegally conveyed a religious message.

The upshot: a $6,000 bill for the school to reprint 400 yearbooks. That unnecessary cost came at a time when the Buena Park School District, like many other school districts, is facing cutbacks.

It should be clear by now, more than two centuries after adoption of the Constitution, that religion does not belong in public schools. Religious freedom is a basic tenet in the formation of this democracy, one that drew this country's founders to its shores. That means that no one can impose his or her religious beliefs on others.

Unfortunately, it is often those who believe most strongly that their religion is the right one for everyone who have the hardest time accepting this.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World