Drawing the line on religious practices in schools

Reprinted with the permission of the Columbia Missourian. Originally posted on wednesday, October 22, 2014.

American/Christian FlagOct. 16 was “Bring Your Bible to School Day,” as declared by the Alliance Defending Freedom, formerly Alliance Defense Fund.

If you noticed, there was no uproar from any Christian, Jewish, Muslim or atheist communities.

I believe the reason there was no hubbub is simple. The organization was very careful in wording the announcement.

Alliance Defending FreedomThe Alliance Defending Freedom is a self-described protector of Christian freedoms in the United States. Its senior legal counsel, Jeremy Tedesco, explained that “Christian students don’t abandon their constitutionally protected freedoms at the schoolhouse gate.”

He continued: “Their freedom to express their beliefs includes the right to bring their Bible to school, to read it during their free time, and to engage in other activities as part of ‘Bring Your Bible to School Day.’”

He is correct in that general assessment.

However, another legal counsel for the organization, Matt Sharp, was wrong when he said: “There’s no legitimate basis for public school officials to prohibit students from engaging in this type of religious expression.”

In fact, there are limitations.

Bringing one’s holy book to school, regardless of religious affiliation, is not in itself restricted. The courts have permitted religious organizations as clubs to exist as long as the group meets the same criteria as any other club in the school. This means that there can be a Christian club, Muslim club, Mormon club and an atheist club, all treated under the same rules.

Second, the courts have ruled that religious activities by individuals are fine as long as the activities don’t disrupt the school day. If a student or group wishes to have a noon prayer meeting, only those students who have a free period can participate. Those who have scheduled classes must be in class.

Third, the school or school district cannot be seen, either real or perceived, as supporting a specific religious group, whether it be one that falls under the heading of “Christian” or otherwise. Even the perception of prayer being led by a member of the faculty can be seen as a sanction of prayer by the school.

This is exactly what happened in Fayette, Missouri, a while back.

A Fayette teacher, Gwen Pope, led Christian prayers for students on Friday mornings after classes began. The perception here was simple: Because the teacher was leading the prayer group, and it was, in fact, disrupting the school day, the activity violated the guidelines established by the courts.

In fact, according to a letter sent to the Fayette R-III School District by the American Humanist Association, the school was perceived as encouraging students to participate in the prayer session, thus sanctioning Christian prayer and violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The district voluntarily stopped the action during school hours.

Federal courts have applied the “Marsh test” to cases where the “court held that legislative prayer should be presumptively permissible, unless it is exploited to advance or proselytize on behalf of one religion to the exclusion or detriment of others.”

The Constitution’s amendments were written to protect the minority from possible oppression by the majority. The very first sentence of the First Amendment states that the state will not establish a religion as “official,” what Jefferson would later note as “building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

There is no reason that a student cannot bring a Bible to school, as long as an atheist can bring Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great” on the same day.

There is no reason to deny a Christian club from meeting, as long as there is the opportunity for a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance to also meet — and just as long as there is no perception of a public institution promoting a religion, either majority or minority.

As long as the Alliance Defending Freedom and other religious groups follow these rules, as long as the students are not coerced directly or indirectly to participate in religious activities such as morning prayers, as long as the school also permits groups other than the majority to participate in their own religious or non-religious practices, declarations such as “Bring Your Bible to School Day” are basically meaningless in the cause of advancing religious freedoms.

 

About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place). He is the winner of the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing. He is also an editor and award-winning speaker. His book, "A Christian Nation? An examination of Christian nation theories and proofs" is available on Amazon, com as a paperback and eBook.
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