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Title: Judge: N.Y. School Violated Rights

Source: Associated Press,  5/21/99 

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Judge: N.Y. School Violated Rights

.c The Associated Press


WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) -- A federal judge ruled Friday that a school district violated the religious rights of three Catholic families by having youngsters cut out elephant-head images of a Hindu god, make toothpick ``worry dolls'' and build an altar for an Earth Day liturgy.

U.S. District Judge Charles Brieant ordered the Bedford Central school district to stop the activities and give clear instructions to teachers about Supreme Court standards for the separation of church and state.

Bedford Central attorney Warren Richmond said the ruling will have a chilling effect. He said the decision went further than any court in the country in directing the behavior of an individual school district.

The case began in 1995, when students in the well-to-do Westchester County district began playing the strategy card game Magic: The Gathering. Some parents complained that the cards, bearing images ranging from fairies to a woman about to be sacrificed, were satanic.

The two-week trial, which wrapped up in March, brought a parade of witnesses, including a yogi-numerologist, a psychic-telepath and a mineralogist who denied that crystals have special powers.

Brieant rejected the families' complaints about yoga lessons, cemetery visits and the use of the card game.

But he said he found ``subtle coercive pressure to engage in the Hindu religion'' when a third-grade teacher, during a lesson about India, had her pupils make construction-paper cutouts of elephant heads after reading a story about Ganesha, an elephant-headed Hindu god.

``While reading the Ganesha story can be part of a neutral secular curriculum, this court fails to find any educational justification for telling young impressionable students to construct images of a known religious god,'' Brieant said.

He found that the district had allowed ``worry dolls'' -- tiny yarn-and-toothpick figures -- to be made in class and sold in a school store as a way for students to keep bad dreams away.

``The business with the worry dolls is a rank example of teaching superstition to children of a young and impressionable age,'' Brieant said.

Some rituals in the school district's Earth Day celebration, including the erection of an altar, were ``truly bizarre'' and crossed over into religious teaching, he said.

One of the parents who sued, Mary Ann DiBari, said she was delighted with the ruling but had hoped the use of the card game would be found to be a constitutional violation.

AP-NY-05-21-99 1433EDT

Copyright 1998 The Associated Press.
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