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Bible verse in charter school sixth-grader’s assignment stirs controversy

When Mackenzie Fraiser’s technology teacher assigned the class a PowerPoint project called “All About Me” in February, the Somerset Academy sixth-grader wanted to include a slide with one of her favorite Bible verses, John 3:16.

The teacher at the public charter school in North Las Vegas said no.

Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for the Texas-based Liberty Institute, a religious rights law firm, joined the Fraiser family Wednesday afternoon to tell the story in front of the federal courthouse.

The North Las Vegas family is demanding an apology from the school and said they will seek legal relief if they don’t get it.

Mackenzie is proud of her Christian faith, and her father, Tim Fraiser, 37, is a pastor at Grace Point Church, a nondenominational Christian church. It made sense to her to include a quote about God’s love for the world in a presentation about herself.

But the technology teacher at Somerset disagreed. When the teacher saw Mackenzie had included the verse, she told the girl to take it out.

Mackenzie said Wednesday that she felt as if she wasn’t supposed to talk about her religion at school. She didn’t make a fuss about it and took the slide out of her presentation.

Her father didn’t hear about the incident at the school, on Centennial Parkway near Commerce Street, until the end of April.

Mackenzie was discussing a leadership class assignment about self-esteem with her parents, who suggested Mackenzie say her self-esteem comes from knowing she was made in God’s image.

Fraiser said he was shocked when his daughter told him she shouldn’t because she’s not allowed to talk about God at school. He emailed the school to find out why his daughter was instructed she wasn’t allowed to use “Biblical sayings” in assignments.

“Can you please explain if this is true? Perhaps, she misunderstood you? Since I am certain you understand that this clearly infringes on my daughters/your students right to freedom of speech, I want to make sure we understand your instructions,” he wrote on April 29.

Two days later he received a response from Assistant Principal Jenyan Martinez.

“When Mackenzie created the project with the expectation she would present the Biblical saying to the class, the matter became one of having a captive audience that would be subject to her religious beliefs. Had the assignment been designed to simply hand in for a grade, this would not have been an issue. Therefore, considering the circumstances of the assignment, Miss Jardine appropriately followed school law expectations by asking Mackenzie to choose an alternate quote for the presentation,” Martinez wrote.

The school, which receives per pupil funding from the state and operates independently of any district, told the Review-Journal in a statement that school officials are investigating the incident.

“We consider the civil liberties of our students to be of utmost importance. As such, we strive to comply in every way with the directives set forth by the U.S. Department of Education with regard to religious expression in public schools,” said the statement, sent by Colin Bringhurst of the charter school management company Academica Nevada.

Dys said the U.S. Department of Education and the Supreme Court have both been clear about the law, and Somerset’s administration got it wrong.

Federal education guidelines say students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination.

What Somerset did violated Mackenzie’s constitutional rights, the lawyer alleged.

“That’s illegal. That’s unconstitutional, and Somerset Academy needs to apologize,” Dys said.

Dys sent the school and the Nevada attorney general’s office a letter Tuesday demanding an apology and a chance for Mackenzie to resubmit the PowerPoint assignment with the verse.

The school has 10 days to respond, Dys said, and hadn’t as of Wednesday afternoon.

Mackenzie said she thinks it’s important to stand up for her rights because she wants to set a good example for her two little brothers.

Contact Wesley Juhl at wjuhl@reviewjournal.com and 702-383-0391. Find him on Twitter: @WesJuhl.

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