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.

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Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and Pagan spirit living in the Deep South. She is currently the National Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess and has worked extensively with Lady Liberty League. Heather's work has been published in Circle Magazine and elsewhere. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • Ursyl

    What type of credits are these religious ed classes being counted as? Do they count towards graduation? GPA? How is this not a form of discrimination in that students of other or no faiths do not necessarily have similar opportunities for such classes? Do students get similar credits for museum classes?

    On the other hand…. I wonder how long that will continue when the local Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and UUs, etc in any given district take advantage of the law for their own, and other, interested students.

    • kenofken

      My bet is that they have no standards at all for academic rigor or consistency or accreditation of any kind. This, and the “freedom of religion” bills are just another way to assert Christianity as the state religion while skirting the letter of the Establishment Clause. I would further bet that the decision on whether to accept outside religious ed credits is entirely at the discretion of school principals, with no objective or transparent criteria for doing so.

      What we’ll see, in very short order in some of these areas, is that any self-styled hillchuck pastor or Christian minister will have their program accepted carte blanche. Muslim and any Pagan program which might materialize somehow just won’t make the cut, even if the teachers are certified teachers and the curriculum is developed by a national organization or university.

      • Franklin_Evans

        I share your sentiments about this. I will point out, based anecdotally on a large urban school district and some knowledge of the districts surrounding it (this is PA), that graduation standards have changed much in the last three decades (my estimation). Like prison terms, students get “credit” for “time served” and “good behavior” without even lip service to academic accomplishment. The current furor is a symptom of a larger problem, IMO, not a recent development.

    • Deborah Bender

      Release time has been around for decades in some localities. I can’t see why any parent would want it for their child unless that child has to work a paid job and has only a limited number of hours in the week for formal education of any kind.

      Highly unlikely that Jews will take their children out of public school for religious instruction, since that would mean missing the classes that the school provides during that period. Jews who want their children to have religious instruction send them to Sunday School, after school classes, or full time private Jewish day schools. If a locality doesn’t have a large enough Jewish population to support religious instruction for children at a synagogue or Jewish Community Center outside of regular school hours, that community isn’t going to find it any easier to offer classes during school hours.

      I would expect Hindus to take the same view. If your children are going to a public school that is supported by your taxes, why would you deprive them of the opportunity to take as many free classes as that school offers?

      The only parents who are going to think this is a good deal are people who a) are suspicious of the secular education that a public school provides and b) don’t trust their children to be intelligent enough to sort out the truth when they are being taught one thing at school and a different thing at home and c) don’t value education enough to want their children to get a lot of it. IOW, ignorant people who want their children to be equally ignorant. This legislation gives them the privilege of passing on ignorance.

  • 9393

    Does this mean I get to perform Liber Resh dunring school hours now?

    • kenofken

      Sure, but you’ll have to pull off the Abramelin operation if you want to get into a good university! :)

  • Crystal Hope Kendrick

    Ah, our wonderful justice and education systems, hell-bent on ruining decent secular institutions.

    • kenofken

      The kids are the ones who are getting screwed on this, ultimately. As their parents gloat about this little culture war victory, I hope they are prepared to support their kids through adulthood. Their time in Evangelical Madrassas isn’t going to count for squat when they’re out in the real world competing for the ever-shrinking pool of living wage jobs. South Carolina is already just about near the bottom of the heap in various education rankings.

      • Crystal Hope Kendrick

        “The kids are the ones who are getting screwed on this, ultimately. As their parents gloat about this little culture war victory”
        Agreed. That’s the worst part.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I just spend a minute clicking ^ on Ursyl, 9393 and Crystal’s comments. Byron Ballard nailed it; both developments are in-your-face religion, ladling privilege on the already privileged.

  • Merlyn7

    When I read:

    “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 ”

    I think “So they can say that the answer is wrong?” Because in a classroom one of the things a teacher can do is say that a student’s answer is incorrect. A teacher is asking for a fact much more often than the are asking for an opinion.

    Happy to teach kids to perform the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram before exams.

    • Crystal Hope Kendrick

      Yep, that will work out real well in the science classroom, I’m sure.

  • http://www.cernowain.com/ cernowain greenman

    Politicians are always going to pull the strings of the uneducated and dominant religion’s clergy on this issue. That is why we must be ever vigilant and keep standing up to these attempts to foster their religion on the whole of society.

    I also have no doubt that some Pagan kids are also going to rise to the challenge of exercising their religious rights based upon these laws. Let’s support them!