Ethnic, racial division of pupils hinders well-rounded education

Sunday, June 8, 1997

How should a teacher deal
with a situation where parents have requested that their child
be kept from associating with another child within the same class?
The parents have claimed personal religious and ethnic differences
as the basis of their request.

Eric Holmes, Logan, Utah

While parents should have a significant
voice in how public schools are run, they don't have the right
to ask a teacher to prevent classmates from associating with one
another for religious or ethnic reasons.

Teachers do have some legitimate
reasons to separate students to maintain class discipline. For
example, in cases of serious misconduct, a troublemaker may have
to be transferred or suspended. Clearly, repeated harassment of
fellow students or habitual disruption of the class must be punished.
All students and parents have the right to expect a safe environment
in the classroom.

In the absence of a discipline
problem, however, the teacher cannot keep students apart for religious,
racial or ethnic reasons — even at the request of a parent. The
First Amendment requires teachers to be neutral concerning religious
differences, and civilrights laws prohibit discrimination on
religious, ethnic or racial grounds.

Members of some religious groups,
including many Muslims and Hasidic Jews, are concerned about the
mixing of the sexes in a classroom. Parents in these groups have
sometimes asked schools to do what they can to keep their children
from sitting next to members of the opposite sex. But public school
teaching methods and practices require that boys and girls learn
together. In fact, at least two courts have held that, outside
of physical-education classes, schools are forbidden to separate
boys and girls on the basis of religious requests.

Parents may make other requests
for accommodation that must be taken seriously. For example,
under the First Amendment's free-exercise clause, school officials
should try to accommodate requests of parents and students to be excused for religious reasons from particular classroom discussions
or activities.

How does this work in practice?
When parents ask that their child be excused from reading a particular
book or attending the Halloween party, such requests should routinely
be granted. There is rarely a compelling reason why the school
cannot excuse a student from a particular lesson or activity and
offer an alternative.

Extensive requests to be excused may be more difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate. For
example, a parental request to excuse a student from an entire
reading series or from social studies every time religion is mentioned
would be too impractical and disruptive for the teacher to allow.
In cases like these, the school's interest in providing a well-rounded
education may outweigh the religious-liberty claim.

Sex education is one area of
the curriculum where some states and school districts allow parents
to request excusal from an entire course. In my opinion, this
is a good idea in view of the deep religious objections to some
approaches taken to sex education.

For more information about the
religious-liberty rights of parents and students in public schools,
ask the First Amendment Center to send you the free pamphlet “A
Parent's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools.”