A cross for a grave vs. the Constitution

June 15, 1994|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writer

Brian McConnell labored for weeks in a class at Marley Middle School on the wooden cross that he hoped to place on his grandmother's grave.

But when it came time to put the two sections together, with a spray of dried flowers, he had to do it at home.

His teacher said assembling the pieces at school would have violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

"His teacher said he could cut the pieces of wood, and sand them, and varnish them in class, but it would have to be put together at home because it was a religious item," said Patricia McConnell, whose son is an eighth-grader at the Glen Burnie school.

Brian, who said the cross was to be an un-graded extra project for his technical education class, was upset when he heard he would have to finish it at home.

"I mean, the teachers talk about the Bible, and religion is even mentioned in our textbooks. I don't think it's fair," the 14-year-old said.

At issue are the child's freedoms of self-expression and religion, weighed against the traditional separation of church and state that keeps most religious expression, including end-of-year baccalaureate ceremonies, out of schools now.

Ken Lawson, associate superintendent for instruction and student services, said that "as a general matter there are always questions in schools about separation of church and state.

"I mean, two pieces of wood that intersect may or may not be a religious symbol, or they might be a cross."

The school principal, Robert J. Janovsky, said last night that the cross was an extra project begun with the understanding that it be assembled out of school.

"I concur with what the teacher was doing," Mr. Janovsky said. "He wanted the youngster to go through and complete this project and the teacher thought he was helping him. The teacher was cautious, but I don't blame him."

Mrs. McConnell said she was touched by her son's desire to make a cross for his grandmother, Goldie Baker, who died two weeks before Christmas, and that she has been troubled by the teacher's decision, although she hesitated to call the school to complain.

"He's a special education student, with a mild learning disability, and for him to make something artistic takes more time, so I thought it was really sweet that he wanted to do this," Mrs. McConnell said. But the more she thought about it, the more it bothered her, she said. She said her mother's death had been traumatic for the family.

"We were very close to my mother. We lived near her," she said. "I'm disappointed my mother never got to see our new house."

Yesterday, Mrs. McConnell called the morning talk show on WBAL-AM radio, where Sun columnist Dan Rodricks was filling in for Alan Prell.

"All this has just been bothering me, so I decided to just call the radio station, and see if it bothered other people, too," she said.

"The response was bigger than I thought."

An understatement. Callers responding to Mrs. McConnell's complaint filled about half the show, Mr. Rodricks said.

One listener sent a fax message suggesting schools would have to stop teaching "the whole Renaissance/Baroque period" and wondering whether student trips to the National Gallery in Washington should be banned because of the paintings with religious themes.

"Let's be safe," the listener wrote, "No art in public school."

Brian, meanwhile, has held fast to his goal.

Recently, he nailed the two pieces of the cross together at home. This weekend, he'll give the cross to his grandmother.

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