When Gio Rubeo grows up, he plans to join the Marines and perhaps later take up boxing. But for now, the 12-year-old is involved in a different sort of fight.
On April 8, Gio brought his Bible to Park Lakes Elementary School in Lauderdale Lakes for the 90-minute free-reading period. He had already brought it to free reading throughout February and March, and just as often, his fifth grade teacher, Swornia Thomas, had instructed him to put it away.
But this time, when she told him to stow the Good Book, Rubeo asked Mrs. Thomas to call his dad. That has led to the Rubeos demanding an apology for violating Gio's civil rights. The Broward County School district maintains Gio read his Bible when he was supposed to be doing schoolwork. But it can't explain why Thomas left a voicemail to Gio's father in which she stated, "I noticed that he has a book – a religious book – in the classroom. He's not permitted to read those books in my classroom."
Gio said he needed to take a stand on his right to read the Bible, despite being singled out by a teacher in front of the whole classroom.
"I was pretty embarrassed, but not as embarrassed as the first couple times it happened," Rubeo said at a press conference Monday, at which he appeared with his father, Paul, and Jeremy Dys, an attorney with the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal group that defends religious freedom.
The United States Supreme Court has stated unequivocally that schools must be strictly neutral in their treatment of religion, and the Department of Education's website specifically reads, "Students may read their Bibles or other scriptures … during recess, the lunch hour, or other noninstructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities."
Now, the Rubeos, along with Dys, are demanding the school district apologize and give notice that schoolchildren may read religious books during free reading time.
"Giovanni has every right to read his Bible during these free reading times, just like every other student does, and that needs to be reinforced in Broward County and throughout the country," Dys said.
The district said notice has already been given but insists the Bible reading in question took place when the kids were supposed to be reading from a specific list of books.
"It's an accelerated reading program," said spokesperson Cathy Brennan. "During that program, students may choose books from an area and depending on the difficulty level of the book, students earn points."
Yet it can't explain why Thomas said Rubeo could not have religious books in her classroom.
"The district is reviewing that situation," Brennan said. "Once the school's principal was made aware, she told the family that students are allowed to bring religious books to school, and the district is working to communicate with all families that students are permitted to bring religious materials so that everyone knows they can bring these items to school."
In a letter to Paul Rubeo, the school's principal wrote "your child is permitted to read the Bible before school, after school and during lunch."
The note made no mention of free reading time, but according to Brennan, "Conversations between school leadership and family took place that made it very clear that the student can bring the Bible to free reading time."
Gio said he has no regrets about having a showdown with his teacher.
"I knew I was standing up for something right. Not every battle's with your fists," he said, gesturing to his head. "Sometimes, the battle's in here."