Thursday, January 23, 2014
School Prayer and other Free Exercise of Religion in the Public School
My article from this week's newspapers answering questions about school prayer and other religious exercise in public schools:
Q: How should Christians approach the question of school prayer? What about other religious acts and speech in public schools – are there limitations on these things, and how should Christians respond if they believe their rights are being violated?
Exercising religious freedom in public schools has been a touchy subject over the past few decades of the American experience. The tendency has been to take either side of an all-or-nothing approach. This is probably a result of the transition from a former era, which several generations of readers might remember when public schools commonly held teacher-led prayers during the school day.
Upon being challenged, most instances of such prayers ceased. Interesting to note is that it is not only atheists or religious minorities who oppose school-sponsored prayer. Rather many Christians actually oppose prayer in the public schools as well, usually because they do not desire that their children be led in prayers which might contradict the doctrinal position of their church, because the adult leading the prayer is led by a Christian with differing doctrinal convictions.
In the wake of the school prayer prohibitions, there then occurred an overcorrection of sorts. Many citizens who were uninformed about the legal reasoning involved began to mistakenly conclude that all religious speech and action are forbidden in public schools. On the contrary, courts have consistently held that it is acceptable to read various scriptures as world literature or to describe religion in the context of history and the social sciences.
There are two primary distinctions that should be remembered, both by students and their parents, as well as by school employees, when considering the appropriateness of religious exercise in the public schools:
The first of these deals with who is leading the religious exercise. Teacher-led or school-initiated religious exercise, such as prayer or proselytization, when held during school hours and within the exercise of their duties as school officials, are uniformly inappropriate, as they constitute government endorsement of religion. At the same time student-led and initiated cases of religious exercise, including prayer, evangelism, or Bible reading, are generally protected, within one confine – that they do not violate another neutrally-applied rule of the school.
This constitutes the second distinction regarding a student’s religious freedom in school – that students must obey the neutrally-applied rules of their school - meaning that the rule governs general behavior without targeting or singling out religious exercise.
So, for example, a school could forbid all clothing that contained graphics or messages, and the rule would be neutrally-applied. However, if they singled out t-shirts with religious messages, while allowing others, the rule would no longer be neutral.
Similarly, a school could forbid all literature other than textbooks from a study hall period and have a neutral rule, but if the school allowed students to read popular culture magazines, books on hobbies or athletics or music, or other non-curriculum materials, but restricted students from bringing religious literature, the rule would no longer be neutral, and the district could even face potential legal implications for discriminating against the students.
Of course, in such an emotionally-charged topic as religion, there will be occasions where the rules are abused, manipulated, or ignored, but Christians should resist the temptation to engage in such tactics. Instead, the Christian is called to defend their rights as a religious citizen, while at the same time doing so in a legal, ethical, and non-malicious manner.
The first step should always be to seek to work with the school and its officials to ensure students’ rights are protected, and even if such efforts fail and adversarial means must be used, to pursue the defense of their rights without spitefulness or a desire for revenge, but instead in the interest of protecting the liberty of their neighbors and community.