For most of the United States, public school is out of session, and children are outside making mudpies, playing ball, climbing trees and building Minecraft fortresses on small electronic gadgets. Nobody is thinking about school.
Well, almost nobody. June is “Public School Religious Freedom Month.” Or, at least it is in Pennsylvania; the state in which the historic 1963 Schempp case began. As we previously reported, Abington School District v. Schempp is considered a landmark case in the on-going struggle for religious freedom and equality within public school environments. Schempp challenged the constitutionality of Bible reading within American public schools.In recognition of Pennsylvania’s honorary month, we decided to look at recent school-related court cases and proposed or enacted legislation, which challenge and even flout (e.g., Basevitz v. Fremont RE-2 School District) the U.S. Constitution’s implied “Separation of Church and State.”
Religious equality in public schools is unique within the larger cultural negotiations of religion in the public sphere, chiefly because it involves minors – the very protected, very impressionable, youngest sector of the population. These cases often become a power struggle between the administration or even a single teacher and parents or guardians. In a few cases, the struggle is between a teacher and administrators. The Atheist activist group Freedom From Religion Foundation has said that 40% of its received religious-freedom complaints are school-related.
In some situations, the struggle over control of a child’s education and personal expression calls into question the social lines drawn between educational responsibility and rights. These situations also question the ethical boundaries of exposure and advertising to young people (e.g., Lubbock v. Little Pencil), and the capitalizing on expectations or positions of authority (e.g. Boy Scout in-class recruiting.) These cases can even go so far as to insult a parent’s credibility, marginalize a minority religious practice or culture (e.g., Griffith v Caney Valley Public School), and place a fragile young spirit in awkwardly social positions, ostracizing them from friends during a critical social growth period.
These battles, in many ways, are a wrestling-match over our future – personal, community, and legislative.Imagine picking up your child school from school and finding a group of older men in sensible sport jackets, red ties and khakis handing out mini copies of the New Testament. As the last bell rings and children exit the school building, these men stand ready to hand each child a brightly colored book strategically decorated like a school locker for greater appeal.
This very scenario happened in May at a school district in north Georgia. When approached, the men happily said that they were simply “sharing teaching Bibles with the children” and that the school knew they were there. Unconstitutional? The men passing out the Bible made it a point to stand just off school property near the three entrances, and only began distribution after school ended. While this situation remains frustrating for many non-Christians and Christians alike, the group was within legal boundaries.
Situations like this and other school-related religious freedom issues are unfortunately not uncommon. While every case doesn’t directly involve Pagans and Heathens, every situation and decision affects the entire student body, not only the families who take their story to the press, to the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United or, if you are in the Pagan world, to Lady Liberty League.
Let’s look at two recent situations.
Creationism Regularly Taught in Louisiana Schools
Do you have children in Louisiana public schools? If so, you might want to look closely at the science curriculum. According to a recent Slate magazine article, Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education said, “We know that one in eight high school biology teachers advocate for creationism, even though it’s unconstitutional.”
In 2008, Louisiana passed the “Louisiana Science Education Act,” which opened the door for the teaching of creationism within its public school system. This law, commonly referred to as the “Creationism Act,” states that its purpose is to “promote students’ critical thinking skills and open discussion of scientific theories … including “evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.” Although the law also specifically states that it “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine,” a new investigative report has proven the contrary.
Recent investigative work by Slate’s Zack Kopplin demonstrates that creationism is regularly taught in school districts across the state, using Bibles as supplemental teaching texts. He revealed his findings in two separate articles for the online news journal. Not only does his research demonstrate open school support of such teachings, he also suggests that state legislators have been pressuring districts to include creationism in the curriculum.
Kopplin also notes that there have been 10 attempts to repeal the Creationism Act since its enactment, but none have been successful. In his latest report, Kopplin concludes, “All it will take is for one Louisiana parent or student to sue the state for endorsing religion in public school, and teaching creationism will become illegal again. But for the moment, because Louisiana politicians refuse to take action, Louisiana students are reading Genesis in science class.” Americans United (AU), the ACLU, and Freedom From Religion Foundation have all made it clear that they are watching and waiting. AU wrote, “Let’s hope someone will step up soon.”
Prayer in School
In Indiana, the ACLU filed a lawsuit June 1 on behalf of a Jim and Nichole Bellars, whose son attends River Forest Junior / Senior High School. As reported, the complaint reads:
The coach-led prayers, the School Board prayers, and the graduation prayers all violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
According to the Indiannapolis Star, the child was told to “get along better” with the coaches and that he should “just sit there and be quiet but that the prayers would continue and that [he] had to remain huddled with the team.” Since the parents got involved, the child has been subjected to harassment by others at the school.
Interestingly, the case touches on three different observational complaints, implicating the sports program, the graduation exercises and the school board meetings. According to ACLU reference material, the Supreme Court is clear on the unconstitutionality of both coach-led and graduation prayers. “In 1992, the Supreme Court held in Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577 (1992), that prayer – even nonsectarian or nonproselytizing prayer – at public school graduation ceremonies violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” Similarly “in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 68 U.S. 4525 (2000),” the United States Supreme Court ruled against coach-led optional prayers before sporting events. The ACLU explains:
Such system encourages divisiveness along religious lines and threatens the imposition of coercion upon those students not desiring to participate in a religious exercise. Simply by establishing the schoolrelated procedure, which entrusts the inherently nongovernmental subject of religion to a majoritarian vote, a constitutional violation has occurred.
The third issue raised in the Indiana case is the legality of prayer before school board meetings, which is an entirely different challenge. School Board meeting are largely adult forums and do not involve the education of minors. So this raises an important question. Does the 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway case, allowing for sectarian prayers during government meetings, apply to such school boards?
According to the ACLU documentation, it does not. The document says that “In Coles ex rel. Coles v. Cleveland Bd. of Educ., 171 F.3d 369 (6th Cir. 1999) …the Court observed that ‘[t]he very fact that school board meetings focus solely on school-related matters provides students with an incentive to attend the meetings that is lacking in other settings.” The organization goes on to suggest that, in many cases, students are required to attend such meetings. Therefore, since there is a potential for coercion of minors, sectarian prayer at school board meetings is definitively unconstitutional. This idea is firmly based on the premise of protecting our youth. Adults can presumably handle hearing opposing views without being coerced, where children can’t.
Americans United agrees with the ACLU. However, without a specific SCOTUS ruling, there is still much debate.Many other situations and cases are on file and pending. In the Basevitz case, as linked below, a Jewish teacher is currently suing her district for allowing a local church to offer services in the lunchroom during school hours. In the Griffith v. Caney Valley Public Schools case, a student sued the school board for not allowing her to wear a sacred eagle feather during graduation. She lost her case. In Lubbock v. Little Pencil, a school district was sued when it rejected a religious advertisement proposed for its stadium’s jumbo tron. The court ruled in favor of the school. And, in Georgia, a local high school has recently announced that its “back to school activities” will be held in a nearby Baptist megachurch due to building construction. There is no legal challenge to this action yet.
The cultural discussions over religious equality often seem to just spin round and round. The freedom of religious expression (e.g., Griffith v Caney Valley Public School) and the definitive separation of church and state (e.g., Basevitz v. Fremont RE-2 School District) often come into conflict within that struggle, adding nuance to already complicated legal situations and personal sacrifice. In addition, the rules change and situations become more emotional when children are involved; when the future and the, often-considered sacred, right of parents and guardians as religious and cultural guides is challenged.