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June 12, 1999
Appeal Planned In Paper Ganesha Case
A P Kamath in New York
The administrators of a public school in New York are planning to appeal a recent judgement that upheld the contention of several parents who had complained that a teacher at the school had brought religion into the classroom when she asked the students to make paper images of Lord Ganesha.
"Because of this judgement teachers may hesitate to teach about foreign culture," said Dr Bruce Dennis, superintendent of the Bedford School District. "Most of the parents including Catholic parents did not find anything wrong in what we taught. In fact, they were embarrassed at the action of a handful of parents."
Public schools are forbidden to have prayers and religious ceremonies. The Catholic parents had also complained that their children's religious sensibilities were offended because they were asked to create "a likeness or graven image of a Hindu God."
The parents removed their children from the school more than six years ago but the suit, backed by American Catholic Lawyers, continued. The parents and their supporters say they continued with legal action because they did not want other public schools to emulate the example set by the Bedford school.
While Judge J Braient did not think that the teacher, Jackiel Reizes, violated the Constitution when she read the story about 'How Ganesha Got His Elephant Head' to her students, he said she was wrong in asking them to make Ganesha's image.
Reizes, an admirer of Indian culture and folklore, had used the Ganesha legend in her class while discussing life and society in Bombay.
A teacher, without violating the Constitution, could instruct her class to make a paper image of an elephant after the class reads the story of Babar or Dumbo, the judge said but asking the class for Ganesha's image was an entirely different matter.
"At issue here is not a 'silly' third grade level image of an elephant with a crown but rather a teacher instructing or encouraging a student to construct an image of a religious deity worshipped today by many," he ruled.
The students never really got to make the image because they ran out of time.
"While reading the Ganesha story can be part of a neutral secular curriculum," the judge said, "this court fails to find any educational justification for telling young impressionable students to construct images of a known religious God."
"This part of the message, however benign in purpose or intent, has the appearance to a child of that age that the school is communicating a message endorsing Lord Ganesha and the Hindu religion," he added.
But the judge would not agree with the parents who also objected to yoga classes. The parents had taken the position that yoga originated as a practice of Hindu religion and hence is a form of idolatry.
The yoga exercises were conducted by Agia Akal Singh Khalsa known widely as the Yoga Guy. He had testified he "wasn't there to teach anything more than a stress reduction exercise."
The judge said the evidence at trial had failed to show that the Yoga Guy made any effort to teach religion or foster any religious concept or idea connected with Yoga.
"There is evidence that the plaintiff's children, on request, were allowed to opt out of the yoga exercise," the judge ruled.
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