Religion and Public Schools: a new round of laws

Heather Greene —  July 16, 2014 — 13 Comments

The cultural negotiations concerning religious freedom in the public sphere are continuously peppering America’s daily socio-political dialog. As our country becomes more diverse, or more open about its diversity, with respect to religion, the violations or perceived violations of the “separation of church and state” become more numerous and more of a burden on any given population. Most recently legislative prayers were the focus of this debate. SCOTUS ruled and the dialog shifted.

[Public Domain Photo]

[Public Domain Photo]

However legislative prayer hasn’t been the only point of contention in the past month. While town meetings stole the spotlight for a time, the debate over religious expression within public schools has recently flared up in several states. Here are two issues brought to the forefront this summer.

Student Religious Liberty Act

In June, both North Carolina and Missouri adopted a student religious liberty act, similar to one already in place in Mississippi. According to the North Carolina legislature, its Senate Bill 370 is:

An act to clarify student rights to engage in prayer and religious activity in school, to create an administrative process for remedying complaints regarding exercise of those student rights, and to clarify religious activity for school personnel.

Missouri House Bill 1303, known as the Missouri “Student Religious Liberty Act,” has the similar aim. It states in part:

A public school district shall not discriminate against students or parents on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression. A school district shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the district treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and shall not discriminate against the student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject.

The two bills were hotly debated over a period of months. Regardless of any complaints, they were eventually passed and signed into law. On June 19, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrary signed SB 370 after a landslide victory in both the state House and Senate. Similarly, on June 30, the Missouri bill was passed with overwhelming legislative support and then signed by Governor Jay Nixon.

In both cases, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made the same protest statement:

Students’ rights to voluntarily express and practice their faith in the public schools are already well-protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Students already have the ability to pray and express religious viewpoints and attempts to statutorily protect those rights is unnecessary. (Press Statement May 6, 2014, ACLU – NC)

The ACLU contends that the additional law will only add confusion and potentially lead to “the excessive entanglement of school personnel in religious activity while ostracizing students of different beliefs.”

[Photo Credit: Flickr's Liz cc-lic]

[Photo Credit: Flickr’s Liz cc-lic]

Byron Ballard, a North Carolina resident who has worked very closely with her local school districts on issues of religious freedom, agrees adding:

It will change things because it will embolden people to be even more belligerent than they already are. It will make the school day more difficult for teachers … This is an “open carry” prayer law. Certainly it applies to anyone who wants to pray, so there are Pagans in the state who are pleased to see it. But we are such a minority that this law will continue to serve the majority Protestant Christians in the way they have always been catered to in NC and elsewhere. It codifies the Protestant Christian privilege that is endemic in the public square.

Credits For Religious Education

On June 12, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed House Bill 171, an act that “permit[s] public school students to attend and receive credit for released time courses in religious instruction conducted off school property during regular school hours.” In a guest post on Cleveland.com, State Rep. Jeff McClain – R applauded the passage of the bill saying:

The Ohio legislature made great gains last week when it comes to protecting the moral and educational rights of our students … these types of programs have a positive impact on children. They help to create a constructive outlet where students can learn morals and manners in an educational environment. I would argue that it makes one a better student and certainly a more respectful one.

The ACLU of Ohio disagrees. In December 2013, they testified against the legislation, calling HB 171 “misguided.” They clarify that the law allows credit for “purely religious instruction, whether done via a private school, place of worship or other non-entity.” The complaint goes on to say, “A public school providing credit for purely religious teaching unquestionably violates [the First Amendment government neutrality] mandate … House Bill 171 is replete with practical and constitutional problems.”

In 2012, a similar statue brought legal action in South Carolina. In the case Moss v. Spartanburg Cty School District, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) challenged the City of Spartanburg’s issuing of credit for religious education during “released time.” The case worked its way through the courts to the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the city issuing credits for religious instruction. In the summer of 2012, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case leaving the lower court’s ruling as final.

Ohio is now the second state behind South Carolina that will issue educational credits for religious classes attended off-campus during “released-time.”  While no-school funds can be used to support the religious instruction, the schools do have say on which external classes quality for credit. Could a Pagan or Heathen organization offer such education to its own children for school credit? As pointed out by the ACLU of Ohio, the potential for legal entanglements is very high.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.