Devotional programs invite legal problems

Sunday, February 14, 1999

A public school isn't the local church. Nor is it the temple, mosque or synagogue.

But when a group of Buddhist monks comes to town, some school districts have difficulty being consistent. What most schools forbid in December suddenly becomes okay in January.

That's what happened in a Utah school district recently when Tibetan Buddhist monks performed prayers, along with sacred music and dance, at a school assembly. This same district is careful each December to ensure that the “holiday assembly” isn't devotional and doesn't resemble a worship service.

School officials defended the Buddhist presentation as an appropriate educational activity. It's “cultural,” they said, not “religious.” But that's a distinction without a difference. Buddhism in Tibet is virtually inseparable from Tibetan culture. Besides, if prayers, sacred music and dance aren't religious, what is?

I'm sure that these Utah school administrators didn't intend to involve students in a worship ceremony. But the fact that the monks practice a religion that seems exotic and remote to most students in this Utah district doesn't make their ceremonial presentation less religious. The monks were doing more than telling the kids about Buddhism; they were offering real prayers and performing authentic, sacred ceremonies.

Consider an example that's closer to home for many of us. Imagine a public-school assembly featuring Catholic monks offering the mass and singing Gregorian chants. In such a situation — even in a community where the lack of Catholic presence might make such ceremonies seem “exotic” — most parents would feel that their children had been required to participate in a religious service.

Some folks in the Utah district suggested that the solution should be to allow various devotional assemblies by different faith groups during the school year. But two, three or four constitutional wrongs don't add up to a constitutional right. The First Amendment prohibits public-school officials from endorsing any religion, period.

A better solution is to make sure that assembly programs are educational, not devotional. Religion can be included, but only as part of an effort to teach kids about a variety of religions and cultures throughout the school year.

In this case, why not invite the travelling group of Buddhist monks to speak to history classes about their religious and cultural traditions? Such a presentation might well include some examples of Tibetan Buddhist music and dance, but the context would be that of helping the students learn something about the Buddhist tradition. If a schoolwide assembly were planned, it could focus on Tibetan history and language, as well as descriptions of the religious beliefs and practices of the Tibetan people.

(It should be noted here that even when an effort is made to ensure that the presentation is educational, assemblies focusing on one religion are problematic. From a pedagogical and legal point of view, it's best to learn about religions at the points in the curriculum where such teaching naturally comes up.)

There's an important lesson in all this for people who still push for devotional Christmas programs in public schools: If you want the school to sponsor your religion, you can't complain when it sponsors others.

Under the First Amendment, public schools shouldn't promote any religion. And they shouldn't keep religion out. The constitutional solution is to make sure that assemblies serve an educational purpose for all students, without making any students feel excluded or forced to identify with a religion not their own.

Contact the First Amendment Center for a set of consensus guidelines on how to include religion in school programs in ways that are both constitutional and educational.