“Bible Bully”: Right-Wing Media Twist The Truth On Religious Restrictions In Florida School

Fox HostsRight-wing media have worked themselves into a tizzy over a controversy about a student reading his Bible in a Florida public school, but they aren't telling the whole story.

The CBS affiliate in Miami, FL, reported on May 5 that a fifth-grade boy at a public school in Broward County claimed he was banned from reading his Bible during “free-time reading” in his classroom:

A Broward County boy said he was banned from reading “The Good Book” during free-reading time in school. The boy and his father have hired an attorney, calling this a violation of the boy's Constitutional rights. Meanwhile, the Broward County School District says this is all a big misunderstanding.

The Miami Herald reported that Broward school officials “rejected the accusation” because the student was reading his Bible during a “classroom 'accelerated reading' program,” not during a free-reading session. The Herald also noted that the boy's family is being represented by the Liberty Institute, a “conservative religious-rights group” that “targeted Broward County on Monday in an ongoing campaign contending that faith is under attack in America's elementary schools.” (Indeed, the Liberty Institute has a “long history of hyperbolic assertions about the impending end of religious freedom.”)

A statement from Broward County Public Schools on Monday, May 5, affirmed the county's commitment to religious freedom:

Broward County Public Schools respects and upholds the rights of students to bring personal religious materials to school, including the Bible, and to read these items before school, after school or during any “free reading” time during the school day. 

On right-wing media, however, it's a much different story.

Fox News' Fox & Friends discussed the story on May 6, leading with its “Trouble With Schools” chryon. Co-host Steve Doocy claimed that the boy's father had previously been in touch with the school principal about when the boy was allowed to read the Bible in school, which included before and after school, during lunch, and at free time, but that “the teacher didn't like it” when the boy began reading his Bible during “his free time.” Doocy continued:

DOOCY: Well the teacher didn't like it, and the kid said, if you have a problem with this, you need to call my dad. Well the dad wasn't there to pick up the phone and instead, the teacher left this embarrassing voicemail.

After playing a recording of the voicemail the boy's teacher left for the father, co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck noted that the boy and his father would be on Fox & Friends the following day. While airing a chyron that read “Bible Bully? Teacher Humiliates Student For Reading Bible” Doocy concluded the segment by saying [emphasis added]:

DOOCY: Yeah I read in one of the local news sources down there that the school district says he was reading the bible when he should have been reading an assigned book. It was not during free time, the school district now says. But it sounds like that's just what they're saying when they got caught. Anyway, we'll talk to the family tomorrow.

Later on Fox & Friends, Fox radio host and infamous culture warrior Todd Starnes joined the show to discuss the Florida school, calling the teacher's voicemail the “smoking gun” in this story, labeling the message “snarky” and “terse” before making the following assertions:

STARNES: We've got to start calling this like it is. We either have a bunch of religious bigots teaching our kids or we have a lot of ignorant people who don't understand the law.


STARNES: What if that child had been reading a Koran? I don't think that teacher would have done a single thing.

Starnes made a similar assertion in his column for FoxNews.com, also published at TownHall, where he cited the Liberty Institute at length and concluded that “Had the kid been reading 'Fifty Shades of Gray,' he probably would've been given a gold star.”

Over at Breitbart.com, senior legal analyst Ken Klukowski made no mention of the school district or the school official's statements in his May 5 article, instead trumpeting the Liberty Institute's claims of First Amendment “violati[ons],” the teacher's voicemail, and a demand letter the Institute sent to Broward County Public Schools claiming that the “school's actions exemplify the hostility to religion that the U.S. Supreme Court has condemned.” Newsmax's Jason Devaney echoed similar sentiments on May 5, often citing the Liberty Institute and even once quoting the Facebook page of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, but neglecting to cover the other side of the story.