First Amendment protects student ‘God-talk’ in public schools

Sunday, April 1, 2001

What is it about student religious speech that causes some school officials to react with fear and trembling?

Consider the second-grade girl in Wisconsin who wasn't allowed to distribute her homemade Valentine's Day cards this year because they contained religious messages such as “Jesus loves you.”

The other kids got to hand out cards featuring everything from Britney Spears (in “short shorts” no less) to Harry Potter.

Talk about taking the “saint” out of St. Valentine's Day.

Even stranger is the case of the California middle-school student who was told last month not to wear a T-shirt that states on the front: “Notice: Public Schools Need God.”

On the back is an exchange currently making the rounds on the Internet:

“Dear God, why do you allow so much violence in schools? Signed, a concerned student. Dear concerned student, I'm not allowed in schools. God.”

Beyond the fact that it's difficult to imagine banning God from anywhere, the truth of the matter is that God-talk by students is allowed in public schools. Administrators are supposed to know that by now.

And here's the irony: Banning the T-shirt only convinces more people that the message on it is true.

What's going on in these schools?

The Wisconsin district says the child can give out the Valentines at lunch or between classes, but not during class time. To allow that would violate “separation of church and state.”

But it's government — not private citizens — that the First Amendment's establishment clause prohibits from promoting religion. If all the children are allowed to hand out cards with various messages in class, then this little girl should be permitted to give out hers as well.

Prohibiting only those student cards with religious messages strikes me as government hostility to religion — which the establishment clause also forbids.

The California district argues that the T-shirt in question is beginning to cause some conflict and exchanges of words between students. So to prevent disruption, school officials are convinced they have the authority to ban the message.

It's true that courts give school officials lots of discretion to censor student speech, especially if the speech is lewd, vulgar or hateful. All the school need do is give a good educational reason for doing so.

But the courts are stricter when it comes to banning political or religious speech. Unless the speech causes “substantial disruption,” school officials may not ban it.

The fact that some students don't like the message on the T-shirt doesn't constitute substantial disruption. In fact, to prohibit the shirt because some kids want to argue about it comes close to allowing a “heckler's veto,” something the Supreme Court has said the government may not do.

Almost by definition, religious and political beliefs cause dissension and debate. But unless the speech is responsible for a clear pattern of fights, school officials can't simply ban viewpoints that some people may find offensive.

The solution isn't to punish the messenger, but rather to turn the debate into a teachable moment. Students who don't like the message should be taught how to disagree with it in a manner that is both civil and respectful of the rights of others.

The other part of the solution is teach school officials about the First Amendment. It's difficult to uphold the law when you don't know what it is.

A recent survey by the First Amendment Center reveals that 39% of administrators and 69% of teachers are “not at all familiar” with the guidelines on student religious expression distributed to every public school by the U.S. Department of Education last year. Some folks aren't reading their mail.

If the culture wars of the past decade have taught us anything, it's that bitter conflicts and lawsuits over religion in the schools can tear communities apart and undermine the educational mission of our schools.

Properly understood, the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment can prevent these controversies. But the First Amendment only works if we apply it.

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