Battles still ahead for religious liberty in public schools

Sunday, May 30, 1999

With the end of the school year in sight, it's a good time to take stock of religious liberty and public schools. What are the current battlegrounds? What's in store for next year?

Here's a year-end report on five hot-button issues from the front lines of the debate over religion and schools.

Religious-liberty rights of students

In this arena, there's good news and bad. The good news is the consensus among many religious and civil liberties groups concerning the religious-liberty rights of students under current law. More good news: the president's directive on religious expression in public schools has let all superintendents know about students' rights.

The bad news is that many school districts haven't gotten the message (or have chosen to ignore it). Where districts pay attention, however, there are fewer problems and more support for the schools.

What's not settled is the issue of student-initiated, student-led prayers before a captive audience at school-sponsored events. The lower courts have issued conflicting (and sometimes confusing) rulings. In the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, we heard a “yes” to student prayers at graduation, but a “no” to the same prayers at football games. Look for a real dogfight over this issue next year.

Equal access for student groups

While the question of students praying before a “captive audience” remains undecided, the right of secondary-school students to form religious clubs is settled law. This year, student religious clubs continued to proliferate in high schools nationwide. And the rules laid down by the Equal Access Act seem to be working.

But lawsuits and fights still break out in those few districts where school officials persist in treating religious clubs differently from other clubs. In a couple of districts, officials tried to forbid religious clubs from performing outside on school grounds, even though other clubs had been allowed to put on performances in the past. In several other districts, religious clubs were denied the right to meet during lunch, even though other clubs were doing so.

After a short course in the law, most erring districts backed down and did the right thing. (The others are still wasting money on lawyers.)

Upcoming battle: What should schools do when students in upper elementary or middle school want to form religious clubs? Since the Equal Access Act covers only secondary schools, officials aren't sure how to respond. This battle will heat up again next year.

Equal access for outside groups

We received a number of calls this year from religious groups complaining that public-school officials wouldn't let them use school facilities during non-school hours. This, in spite of the fact that other community organizations were routinely granted use.

Schools are free to refuse use of school facilities by non-school groups. But the Supreme Court has ruled that if schools allow some groups to use the gym or the auditorium or the cafeteria, then they must allow religious groups to use them as well.

In spite of the court's ruling, some districts are still trying to find ways to restrict use of school facilities by religious groups, even while continuing to allow access by other groups. So look for this (needless and silly) fight to continue next year.

Exodus from public schools

Fights about access to public-school facilities help fuel conservative religious parents' anger at public schools. This past year, the drive to convince evangelical Christians to withdraw their children from public schools intensified-though it's too early to tell how many parents are ready to take such a drastic step.

For the leaders of the “exodus movement,” efforts to protect religious-liberty rights in schools and to include religion in the curriculum aren't enough. No matter what the public schools do to accommodate religion, they argue, Christians should be educating their children in Christian schools.

Expect this debate to heat up next year within the evangelical community itself, thanks to strong differences of opinion on the merits of public education and on the presence of Christians in the public schools.

Vouchers for religious schools

The exodus from public schools might accelerate considerably if some of the current voucher proposals in state legislatures become law (and survive court challenges). Just last month Florida's lawmakers adopted a plan that would allow students at low-performing public schools to attend private schools-including religious schools-using state vouchers for tuition. A court battle is inevitable.

Next year? We might see the U.S. Supreme Court finally take a voucher case. This term the court let stand a decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court upholding a school-choice program that includes religious schools. Now the Maine Supreme Court has ruled that state vouchers can't be used at religious schools.

These two cases differed in at least one significant way: In Wisconsin, the voucher went directly to parents, who then decided where to use it; in Maine, the tuition would have been paid directly to the religious school. Some legal experts are predicting that the U.S. Supreme Court might well uphold the former arrangement, while disallowing the latter. Stay tuned.

What a year. Progress on some fronts, deepening culture wars on others. Next year-for the sake of our schools and the kids in them-let's do all we can to move from battleground to common ground.