Guarding against religious promotion in school

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

I remember being called down to the principal’s office at my public high school in spring 1972. No, I wasn’t in trouble.

When I arrived there, I was handed a phone and told to call the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. They had a question for me.

“Are you Christian?” came the inquiry over the phone.

It seems that I’d been nominated as a Fellowship of Christian Athletes high school athlete of the year and my times on the track were not enough to shore up my nomination. They had to know my faith.

I told the man I was a Methodist. I remained under consideration (but didn’t win) and that was that. Although it was a bit odd for a public school to act as a bridge to a faith-based organization, I certainly didn’t think my constitutional rights were being violated. I’m sure school officials felt they were doing me a favor by relaying the phone message.

That experience came to mind when I read about the American Civil Liberties Union’s warning to a northwest Missouri school district that it might be violating the First Amendment by inviting motivational speakers from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to speak to students.

Ray McElroy, a former NFL player, had made a number of appearances in the St. Joseph School District, arranged in partnership with the FCA in Kansas City.

The establishment clause of the First Amendment bars government bodies, including public schools, from endorsing a faith, and a motivational speaker secured by a Christian group would understandably raise some concerns.

The ACLU wrote to the school district’s attorney that it was “theoretically possible that FCA-affiliated speakers could present secular programs,” but called for “heightened vigilance ” on the part of the school district, according to the Associated Press. The school district’s attorney said the district had reviewed its policies and would comply with the Constitution. That’s a reasonable request and a reasonable response.

It’s a minor dust-up, but it serves as a reminder that sometimes the best-intentioned moves — from booking speakers to handing a student a phone — can raise constitutional questions in a public school. In this case and others, “heightened vigilance” is a good practice.

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