Although the religious freedom of students and teachers in public schools is under attack nationwide, the victims of the onslaught receive scant support, if not outright opposition, from two groups that should be natural allies in defense of the constitutional right to freedom of religion, namely the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and even the National Council of Churches (NCC).
“One thing is clear—a policy excluding persons or groups from using school facilities, or one that imposes discriminatory fees for similar groups because of their religious viewpoint is unconstitutional,” Liberty Counsel president Mat Staver said. “Equal access for after-school groups also applies to the distribution of flyers designed to inform students about the meetings.”
School districts routinely deny Christian groups the right to use rooms to meet after hours. These same districts grant other groups that privilege willingly.
“Child Evangelism Fellowhip (CEF), which sponsors Good News Clubs designed for elementary-age students, has recently won the right to meet on public school facilities in Michigan, Ohio and Connecticut, and to distribute flyers about the Clubs,” the Liberty Counsel reported last month. “CEF is represented by Mathew D. Staver, President and General Counsel of Liberty Counsel.”
A public interest law firm, the Liberty Counsel represents plaintiffs such as the CEF. The Liberty Counsel argued successfully on behalf of a public school teacher in Sioux Falls, S. D., who wanted to participate in a Good News Club—winning that right for Barbara Wigg in a federal court decision.
Although its name suggests that it should also take on such cases, the ACLU frequently finds itself on the other side of the court. Currently, the ACLU is pressuring a school board in Delaware to stop opening its meetings with a prayer.
“Despite pressure from the Wilmington, Del., chapter of the ACLU to cease issuing prayers at public events, officials with the Indian River School District opened a recent school board meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2004, with a brief invocation,” The Rutherford Institute reported. “Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have agreed to defend the Delaware school district should its practice of opening meetings with a prayer be challenged.”
For its part, the NCC stays away from such cases, although the group does not stay mum on the subject of public schools. In its pamphlet on public education, the NCC urges its members and supporters to question political candidates about their stands on education, chiefly to plead for increased government funding.
“We live in a country were society spends the least on the education of children whose families are the poorest,” the NCC points out, not quite accurately. “What steps must we take to make sure children who face every disadvantage can achieve at the levels of wealthier children?”
Actually, government studies and the analyses of private think tanks and academics show that although public spending on schools is highest in large metropolitan areas, little of that largesse makes it into the classroom. Hence, the appeal of vouchers, which the NCC does not mention, that would allow students in failing public schools to exit them in order to attend more successful private ones.
In demurring from tackling the issue of religious freedom in public schools, NCC spokesman Dave Brown pointed out, “The NCC is a strong supporter of the separation of church and state.” So also claims the ACLU, when working the “Separation” language into the name of one of its spin-off groups.
Ironically, historian Thomas Fleming said in an interview on C-SPAN that President Thomas Jefferson used that line in a letter to a Baptist minister in Connecticut. The minister had requested federal funding, which President Jefferson refused.