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Back to the drawing board

National | Student's picture of Jesus is too much for one New York school

Issue: "Top 100 Books 1999," Dec. 4, 1999

Baldwinsville School District officials in New York are upset with 7-year-old Antonio Peck. They asked him to draw a way to save the earth. He drew Jesus. "The bottom line is he was asked to do one thing and he did something completely different," said Robert Creme, Antonio's principal at Catherine-McNamara Elementary School.

Nestled in a small suburb outside Syracuse, the school district was slapped with a federal lawsuit this November after Mr. Creme and other school officials censored Antonio's artwork. The battle began innocuously last June when Antonio returned home with instructions to make a poster on how to save the earth from environmental decay.

"We sat down to do the poster, and I said, 'Antonio, they want to know how to save the earth,'" said his mother, 39-year-old Jo Anne Peck. "He looked at me and said, 'Mom, the only way we can save the earth is Jesus.' That wasn't what I was thinking but I said, 'You're right.' Because he was right." For the next hour, Antonio struggled with scissors and crayons to depict a kneeling, white-robed man and two children standing in front of a rock labeled "savior." In wobbly handwriting, he called his crayon masterpiece "The only way to save the earth."

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Baldwinsville school officials took issue with that assertion and sternly informed Mrs. Peck that the school could not hang her son's picture. When Mrs. Peck protested, Mr. Creme responded that the school would only accept posters about recycling or environmental issues.

So Antonio drew another picture. "He didn't understand why he had to do another poster. I just assured him he was a good drawer," said Mrs. Peck. Antonio's second illustration portrayed a boy picking up trash in front of a church with recycling icons pasted on the edges. Jesus remained, this time kneeling unobtrusively to the left of the picture.

Asked why he included Jesus in both posters, Antonio responded, "Jesus wants us to clean the earth." Mrs. Peck assumed all was well with Antonio's second rendition until school officials invited parents to view their children's drawings two days later. Video camera in tow, Mrs. Peck eagerly perused a cafeteria wall plastered with colorful kindergarten art. Pleasure quickly turned to dismay, however, when she spotted Antonio's awkwardly bent poster surrounded by dozens of perfectly square ones.

Closer examination revealed that school officials had folded Antonio's poster backward to conceal Jesus' image, leaving only half of his church and crayon signature in view. Mrs. Peck stood in shock as 80 kindergartners filed on stage to entertain parents with environmentally appropriate songs. "I couldn't believe that the school would single out the religious part of his poster and fold it in half," she said. Halfway through the singing, Mrs. Peck glanced back to view the poster again and discovered it had mysteriously disappeared.

Asked to explain the school's actions, Mr. Creme repeatedly told WORLD, "That part of his poster wasn't relative to the assignment." Such reasoning is dimly understood by four-foot Antonio, who stares through small, round-framed glasses and explains that his poster was folded "because it wasn't right."

"This sends a horrible message to a kindergarten student," said Mathew Staver, who as president of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel offered free legal assistance to the Peck family. "The clear message conveyed by the school was that Antonio's faith is illegal and is something that must be censored or carried around in a brown paper bag," he said.

If the case goes to trial, Mr. Staver will argue that the school violated the First Amendment as well as a 1995 federal education guideline, which states that "students may express their beliefs about religions in the form of homework, art work ... free of religious discrimination based on the content of their submissions."

"We didn't want to make this into a federal case, but the school wouldn't budge," said Mr. Staver. "In many cases, schools censor students out of ignorance, but this goes beyond ignorance to hostility."

Meanwhile, Mrs. Peck said she's busy at home juggling media requests while raising eight children, four of whom are adopted. "I wasn't ready for this," she sighed, adding that the family has received more than 50 media calls to date, including requests to appear on Court TV and in Seconding the First, a First Amendment production featuring celebrities such as Alec Baldwin and Paul Newman. All because Antonio decided to draw Jesus.

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