Even fourth-grade vocabulary words at issue in Satanism lawsuit

Associated Press/February 23, 1999

White Plains, New York -- Three Roman Catholic families are suing a school district, claiming fourth-grade vocabulary words such as "ghoul," Earth Day celebrations and drug counseling violate their religious and privacy rights.

The families also object to the study of a Hindu god, a field trip to a cemetery and a card game with satanic references.

"There are two standards," said James Bendell, the families' attorney. "Any trace of Christianity must be banished, but teachers are free to smuggle in Eastern religions and any other forms (of belief)."

Bendell made the remarks during opening statements Monday in the federal court trial.

Satanism, occultism and New Age religions were being fostered, he said.

The card game "Magic: The Gathering," is worse than witchcraft, testified one of the plaintiffs, Mary Ann DiBari.

Her two granddaughters and four teen-age brothers from another family testified how they were offended as Catholics by an assembly with a yoga teacher and a visit from a mineralogist who talked about crystals. "It's not my religion, and I don't participate in deep-breathing exercises," said John DiNozzi, 17, referring to the yoga session.

Krystal DiBari, 15, said that when she was in fourth grade, a woman leading a field trip to a cemetery asked one of the children to lie down on a grave "to see the size of the people. ... I didn't like it."

On cross-examination, school district lawyer Warren Richmond got some of the children to acknowledge that they had been able to opt out of some of the classes and their teachers, while educating them about certain cultural beliefs, did not express approval of those beliefs.

Judge Charles Brieant, who had tried to get school authorities to settle the case, repeatedly expressed irritation with the lawyers. He sarcastically said, "That's shocking, isn't it?" when John DiNozzi talked about the presence of senior citizens at Earth Day celebrations.

In his opening, the school district lawyer said the plaintiffs had mischaracterized and wildly misrepresented the programs.

He said the study of Indian and Mexican culture, the celebration of Earth Day and the distribution of tiny dolls -- all objected to in the lawsuit -- do not amount to the endorsement of religion and are standard educational fare replicated throughout the United States.

The suit stems from the popularity of the card game, which divided Bedford in the mid-1990s. Children had been buying the cards in packs at candy stores and playing a strategy game, sometimes in clubs at school. Some of the cards are lurid depictions of demons and one shows a woman about to be sacrificed. When some parents objected, the school district put a moratorium on the game but it was later rescinded.

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