Lawsuits over religion waste school funds

Sunday, May 28, 2000

The school year ends, but the litigation goes on and on. Expensive, divisive lawsuits over religion will keep some school officials off the beach this summer and in the courtroom.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Earlier this year, these same administrators received religious-liberty guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education. If only they had bothered to read the materials, they might now have the money they're spending on lawyers to put toward new textbooks or higher salaries for teachers.

Consider two especially unnecessary and wasteful examples.

A New Jersey district is being sued for barring a kindergarten child from passing out pencils and cards with religious messages to his classmates during class parties.

Meanwhile in Texas, school officials are headed to court to defend their decision forbidding two students from bringing Bibles to school and a third from covering a textbook with a Ten Commandments book cover.

Haven't these districts gotten the message? Under the First Amendment, students have religious-liberty rights in public schools. And the leading religious and educational groups in the nation have agreed on how these rights should be interpreted under current law.

For example, there's general agreement that students do have a right to distribute religious literature in public schools, subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions imposed by the school. In fact, the New Jersey district now being sued does allow students to give out religious materials, but only during non-instructional time.

That restriction would be OK if it applied equally to all non-school materials handed out by students. But it does not. So allowing students to hand out secular — but not religious — holiday items at parties held during instructional time unfairly singles out religious messages for special regulation.

The Texas example is an easier case. According to news accounts, a teacher not only informed the students that Bibles were not allowed on campus, she reportedly told them that their Bibles were “garbage” and dumped them in the trash can.

It's hard to believe that any school official could be so ignorant of the law — or so insensitive to students' religious convictions.

Students clearly do have the right to engage in religious activity and discussion in public schools, including bringing their scriptures to school and putting a religious book cover on their books. Only if a student's behavior is disruptive or coercive should it be prohibited.

What's tragic about these lawsuits (apart from the waste of precious resources) is the distorted picture they paint of public schools. The vast majority of public-school administrators and teachers — even when they are unclear about the law — work hard to respect and accommodate the religious convictions of students.

But a few bad stories are all it takes to reinforce the perception held by many religious parents that public schools are hostile to their faith.

How can you help to prevent these ugly conflicts and unnecessary lawsuits? By making sure that your school district has sound policies in place to protect the religious-liberty rights of all students.

Let's spend our tax dollars in the classroom, not the courtroom.