When a teacher paid to have the Bible passage “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” painted on her reserved parking spot at Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel, a Jewish woman working at the school s complained to the director, asking for the verse to be deleted.
School officials are not inclined to do so, and the complaint has raised questions about the line between respecting and violating the First Amendment.
In the eyes of Marina Gentilesco, the school employee who complained, the Bible verse not only makes her feel uncomfortable as a Jew, it’s a clear violation of the separation First Amendment mandate. of Church and State.
The Pasco County School District, on the other hand, sees this as a matter of free speech, another clause of the First Amendment.
Jonathan Ellis, president of JCC Tampa and the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), spoke with Gentilesco and also contacted the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for advice on the matter.
He later said that the JCRC, after consultation with Lonny Wilk of the ADL’s Florida regional office, concluded that it could not force the removal of the Bible verse. Still, he said he would have a conversation with school district officials about the ramifications of allowing the verse to remain.
Wilk referred the Jewish press to an ADL “tools and strategy” manual on religion in public schools.
Acknowledging that the role of religion in public schools is a subject of “great controversy”, the manual states, “Clear standards and guidance are elusive”.
In a section on religious displays on school property, the manual states, “School-sponsored displays of religious symbols, text, or artwork on school property are prohibited from unless a display is integrated into an appropriate secular program. Whether an exhibition is given by a private group or paid for by private funds will not affect whether it is permitted under the Establishment Clause. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from making a law “respecting the establishment of a religion.”
The manual, however, also points to at least one court case where it was deemed acceptable to display religious symbols on school property because the activity was not sponsored by the school.
Legal or not, Gentilesco, whose parents are Holocaust survivors, says she thinks the Bible verse is an attack on her, evoking the days of Nazi Germany when Christians were favored and Jews were persecuted and finally exterminated by the millions. She said it was something her parents wouldn’t let go without complaining and that as a girl she felt the same way.
“If you want it in church or at home, that’s fine, but it’s in a public school,” she said.
Gentilesco helps students with autism at the school and said about a month ago as she walked through a school parking lot she noticed the sign and then complained to Principal Robyn White, explaining that she had lost loved ones in the Holocaust.
White didn’t seem empathetic, Gentilesco said, but told her she would contact the school district attorney for further guidance.
Two days later, the principal “called me back to her office and told me that the district had decided not to do anything because it was a reserved seat that the teacher had paid extra for,” Gentilesco said. .
Later, when the Jewish press contacted White to comment on the parking lot New Testament verse (Philippians 4:13), Stephen Hegarty, public information officer for Pasco Public Schools, responded on his behalf. He wrote: “At many of our schools, students and/or staff have the ability to customize their specified parking space. There is no taxpayers money at stake and as long as the image or message is not in bad taste, they are free to express themselves.
He added, “The quote in question here is not proselytizing or compelling students or anyone else to share their religious beliefs. The staff member is free to express themselves in this way, just as a person of a different religion would be free to do so.
Gentilesco noted that other teachers paid to have their parking spots painted, a school nurse had a heart, and a teacher who loves hunting has a deer painted in her place. All of the images, she said, were “innocent” except for the Bible quote.
During her conversation with the principal, she said White told her that since the teachers’ cars are parked above what’s painted in their space, no one sees it. “But I saw it, and other teachers saw it, and my husband saw it,” Gentilesco said.
She believes the Bible passage is proselytizing.
During her meetings with White, she felt the director couldn’t see her perspective, especially as a child of Holocaust survivors. “It was like a stranger talking to a stranger,” Gentilesco said, adding that the principal asked her not to speak to the professor who had painted the verse in the parking lot – and she complied with that. request. The Jewish press does not know the identity of the teacher.
This was not the first time that Gentilesco complained to the administrators of Wiregrass High about the intrusion of religion. She once asked not to work with another teacher who she said was constantly trying to convert her to Christianity. This request was granted.
Gentilesco and her husband moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1978 from New York, and she said living in Pasco County had been a culture shock. “There are maybe 100 Jews in this area. Wesley Chapel – it’s very Christian, very conservative.
Gentilesco says his mother had five sisters and one brother and only his mother and one sister survived. The others, along with Gentilesco’s grandparents, perished in the Holocaust. His father’s family also died in the Holocaust, with everyone but him killed. She said both of her parents were in medical school in Italy when the war broke out. His mother ended up hiding in a convent and his father was taken to the Ferramonti concentration camp. His mother and father survived the war and subsequently met in Rome, before emigrating to America.
Gentilesco said she did not believe the teacher painted the Bible verse out of malice, but out of ignorance that it might be offensive to those of another religion.
“I will never tell you that you have to be Jewish. People have the right to believe what they want to believe, but that’s on public property… Don’t put your religion where it doesn’t belong,” she said.