Although I can’t cite a scientific survey to prove it, I have detected a recent upswing in conflicts over religion in public schools. Just as I was beginning to believe that most schools were finally getting religion right, it appears that the trend is in the other direction.
Two examples from the past school year — one from each end of the spectrum — will suffice to illustrate the wider problem.
Last spring, a Colorado school district was sued by a teacher for multiple, egregious violations of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment — including school-sponsored prayers at school events, distribution of religious literature by district employees, and religious activities endorsed by the school.
Two weeks ago, the district settled the case by agreeing to end unconstitutional promotion of religion by school officials.
Meanwhile in Nevada, a public charter school barely avoided an expensive lawsuit by apologizing for telling a sixth-grade student that she could not use a Bible verse in her “All About Me” project — an assignment that was supposed to include “an inspirational saying.”
School officials agreed to allow the student to re-submit her project — this time with the Bible verse included.
What’s striking about these conflicts — and others like them across the country — is that far too many school officials are violating settled law. Either they don’t know the law or, worse yet, they simply choose to ignore it.
For decades now, the U.S. Supreme Court has drawn a clear First Amendment line “between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect,” to quote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority opinion in Board of Education v. Mergens (1990).
In other words, public school officials are constitutionally required to remain neutral toward religion when carrying out their duties. Students, however, are constitutionally protected to express their faith during the school day — as long as they don’t disrupt the school or infringe on the rights of others.
This is not — or should not be — a Left-Right issue. For more than two decades, a broad range of religious, educational and civil liberties groups — including the American Jewish Committee, Christian Legal Society, National School Boards Association, National Association of Evangelicals, National PTA and many others — have endorsed consensus guidelines on the constitutional role of religion in public schools under current law. (Copies of the guidelines can be downloaded from www.religiousfreedomcenter.org).
Since August is workshop time in most school districts, here is a modest proposal for school leaders that would save tax dollars, build parental support and uphold the rights of all students: Provide your teachers and administrators with in-service training by non-partisan, qualified experts on how to apply the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment.
After all, why waste money on lawyers and lawsuits that can be much better spent on innovative classroom resources, higher teachers’ salaries or new technology?
Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and executive director of the Religious Freedom Center. Follow him on Twitter: @hayneschaynes