Public schools that clamp down on religious expression do so in the face of a stream of court decisions that uphold the rights of students and teachers to express themselves religiously, albeit with caveats. “On the one end of the spectrum are those who advocate promotion of religion (usually their own) in school practices and policies,” the First Amendment Center points out. “On the other end are those who view public schools as religion-free zones.”
“Neither of these approaches is consistent with the guiding principles of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.” Based in Nashville, Tennessee, the First Amendment Center has published A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools.
“In the 1960s’ school prayer cases (that prompted rulings against state-sponsored school prayer and Bible reading), the U.S. Supreme Court indicated that public school education may include teaching about religion,” according to the Guide. “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization,” Associate Justice Tom Clark wrote. “It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.”
“Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” Justice Clark was the father of Ramsey Clark, arguably the most liberal U. S. Attorney General in the past half century.
“The use of art, drama, music or literature with religious themes is permissible if it serves a sound educational goal in the curriculum,” the First Amendment Center Guide notes. “Such themes should be included on the basis of their academic or aesthetic value, not as a vehicle for promoting religious belief.”
“For example, sacred music may be sung or played as part of the academic study of music.” The Guide allows that “School concerts that present a variety of selections may include religious music.” Still, the Guide’s author, Charles C. Haynes, advises, “Concerts should avoid programs dominated by religious music, especially when these coincide with a particular religious holiday.”
A host of groups that line up firmly on the secular side of the so-called Church/State divide signed onto the Guide. They include:
• The American Association of School Administrators;
• The American Federation of Teachers;
• The National Association of Elementary School Principals;
• The National Council for the Social Studies; and
• The National Education Association
“If a group of teachers wishes to meet for prayer or scriptural study in the faculty lounge during their free time in the school day, we see no constitutional reason why they may not be permitted to do so as long as the activity is outside the presence of students and does not interfere with their duties or the rights of other teachers,” they agreed. “Teachers are permitted to wear non-obtrusive jewelry, such as a cross or Star of David.”
“But teachers should not wear clothing with a proselytizing message (e.g., a ‘Jesus Saves’ T-shirt.”
Similarly, “The Equal Access Act passed by Congress in 1984 ensures that students in secondary public schools may form ‘noncurriculum-related groups,’” the Guide shows. “The Act is intended to protect student-initiated and student-led meetings in secondary schools.” [Italics in original]
“According to the Act, outsiders may not ‘direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend’ student religious clubs, and teachers acting as monitors may be present at religious meetings in a nonparticipatory capacity only.”
Further, both the First Amendment Center and the PTA urge that “Whenever possible, school officials should try to accommodate the requests of parents and students for excusal from classroom discussions or activities for religious reasons.”
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.