Monday, September 3, 2007

Religion and Public Schools

In the last seven days, my brother Ed has written about three different court cases involving religion in public schools, at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. First, we had the recent 9th circuit court, making an abysmally bad decision about a bible study club, in Truth versus Kent school district. In it, the court ruled that the club could not be afforded recognition by the school, because it required that members be Christians. This, in spite of the fact that several other school clubs actively discriminated against those who did not agree with the specific ideological perspectives advocated by said clubs. This, in spite of the fact that this was the sort of thing the Equal Access Act was meant to prevent.

Two days later, Ed writes about the Praying Parents Case, specifically, John and Jane Doe v. Wilson County School System. In this case, the school is clearly in the wrong. Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with parents getting together to pray for their children's school. It is even reasonable for them to do so on school property, as long as they have permission to do so and don't create a distraction from student instruction. A listing of the factual allegations, with my brothers comments on each one;

1. That the school has a See You At The Pole day and that the school put up posters around the school promoting the event.

The validity of this complaint really rides on who put up the posters promoting the event. The event itself is clearly legal as long as it is organized and sponsored by students or an outside group. If the posters were put up by a student Bible club, for example, then there is no constitutional problem here. If they were put up by the school administration, there is a clear establishment clause violation.

2. The Praying Parents are not merely a group of parents who pray on their own, they are endorsed by the school administration and given access to students that no other group gets.

This is clearly the strongest charge. Any group of parents has every right to pray for anyone they wish to pray for, of course, and depending on the circumstances they probably even have a right to use school facilities to do so. But the complaint presents a great deal of compelling evidence that this goes far beyond that and that this group is not only endorsed and promoted by the school administration, but is given access to classrooms during instructional time.

According to the complaint, after they pray they go around the school and are allowed to go in to classrooms during instructional time to hand out cards and treats to students to let them know that they've been prayed for. The school also has a section on their official website about the group, includes them in the school newsletter and sends fliers home to parents from the group. The access to classrooms is the most damning fact here and it's highly unlikely that the court is going to allow that.

3. The school sponsored and promoted a National Day of Prayer event.

This is also a very compelling part of the complaint. The complaint includes exhibits showing that the school distributed a flier to the students encouraging them to take part in this event. They also published a newsletter endorsing and promoting the event, which was held in the school cafeteria, and even held a contest among students for the best poster to promote the event, which they then hung in the halls of the school.

4. The school held a Christmas program with religious music.

This is a pretty weak claim. The courts have pretty consistently allowed religious music to be performed by school choirs and bands. It's possible that there was more to it than that, but if that's all they have this claim isn't likely to succeed.

5. That teachers led students in prayer and singing religious songs during class time.

This is a pretty serious charge and the complaint says that the school actually sent out a DVD to all the parents showing a montage of the events of the last year that included footage of this going on. Again, unlikely that a court will allow that sort of thing.

The first aspect of the complaint, as Ed mentions, hinges on who is putting up the fliers. If it is students, then it is legal, if not, then there is a serious question of it's legitimacy, if it's the faculty, then it is clearly illegal. The fourth aspect is just plain ridiculous, unless there is more to it than that. It sounds like this school might well have pushed that past a threshhold of acceptability, as they have clearly gone beyond any acceptability in other areas. However, there is absolutely nothing illegal about schools performing religious Christmas music.

Finally, we have what I would consider a very obnoxious case, Busch v Marple Newtown School District, which Ed posted about today. In this, a kindergarten child is given the assignment, about me, which asks kids to tell their classmates about the things they like. Part of the assingment is to draw a picture of their favorite things to do and have a parent come in to read from their favorite book. This particular child drew a picture of his church. Quite reasonable, depending on his mood and which of his friends were there last Sunday, that might be my son's pick (though since he has moved up from the preschool class, where his "best" friend still resides, it would be increasingly unlikely to be his answer). The problem came in when his mom came to read the class a selection from his bible. Now that is not illegal, the school was clearly wrong to keep the mother from reading.

The problem that I have with this case, is that apparently, this is not the child's favorite book. This has nothing to do with the legality of the case, flat out, the school was wrong. I imagine that this is probably why the school did what it did. This does not make it right. I feel very sorry for this child, who's mother would encourage him to be dishonest, in the name of religion. The ethics that this mentality will likely perpetuate, makes me shudder, but I digress.

What I really appreciate about this triad of cases, is that they represent the absolute mess that we have, in regards to religion in public schools. It really isn't all that complicated or difficult. The Equal Access Act is not all that complicated. Clinton produced easy to understand guidelines that clarify what is and is not acceptable, constitutionally, in the nineties.

I got into an interesting exchange, here, which I think does a very good job of showing the fuzzy thinking that gets in the way of reasonable discourse. I would recommend reading the exchange, as not only do I make some rather important points, but so do Ed and another commenter, kerhsam. While it is certainly important to keep schools from advocating religion or any ideology, it is also important to recognize that students have few restrictions in that regard, nor should they. Whether political or religious in nature, restricting student speech, requires passing a very high bar indeed.

No comments: