Right way, wrong way to settle school religious-liberty disputes

Sunday, October 24, 1999

Want kids to learn about the First Amendment? Just tell them that they can't express their religious faith in school. Presto, you'll have instant constitutional experts.

That happened in two public schools this month, one in northern California and the other in Alabama.

The conflict started in California when the girl's volleyball team put up a banner in the school gym reading “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The girls also posted individual signs, many with religious messages.

But school officials were convinced that the banner and signs had to come down because they put the school in the position of appearing to promote religion.

Meanwhile in Alabama, a sixth-grade student was told to put her cross necklace underneath her shirt — or face expulsion. Why? Because the school dress code prohibits students from wearing jewelry of any kind outside their shirts.

After a little First Amendment research, students in both cases decided to fight back. The volleyball team threatened to go to court if players couldn't put up their banner and signs. And the sixth-grader demanded the right to wear her cross where others could see it.

You don't have to agree with these kids (or with their religious beliefs) to applaud their sincerity and courage. From all accounts, the right to express religious convictions is deeply important to each one of the students involved.

School officials in each place handled the protests very differently. One district resolved the matter peacefully; the other is going to court.

The California superintendent did a little First Amendment research of his own and came up with a “common ground” solution. He remained convinced that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the school from promoting religion. Thus the volleyball team banner that hangs in the school gym shouldn't proclaim a religious message.

At the same time, since the Free Exercise clause protects the rights of individuals to express their faith, individual student posters with religious messages should be allowed — especially since other students are allowed to put up posters with secular messages.

Result: the banner stays down, but the posters can go back up. The girls on the team are happy, and the school district can spend its money on new equipment or higher teachers' salaries rather than an expensive lawsuit. Best of all, everyone has learned something about religious liberty.

“I just never really thought about the First Amendment before,” a member of the volleyball team told The Modesto Bee. “Now we're all interested.”

The Alabama school district hasn't been so fortunate. School officials there have decided to dig their heels in and deny the sixth-grader's request to wear her cross outside her shirt. The student and her parents didn't back down. Last week they filed a federal lawsuit.

Although some observers have already written off this case as “frivolous,” I see it as a small incident involving a big principle. Unless there is a very good reason for doing so, it's dangerous to give the state the power to interfere with an individual's right to express his or her faith.

Alabama school officials have two other options. They could allow all students to wear modest jewelry with their school uniforms. But if they are worried about gang symbols or other possible disruptions, they could keep the ban and allow exemptions for modest religious jewelry.

I favor the second option because I read the First Amendment — as well as the Alabama State Constitution — to mean that the state should do everything possible not to interfere with the right of citizens to practice their faith.

Would exempting religious jewelry from the “no jewelry” policy threaten school discipline or interfere with the educational process?

I don't think so.

Call off the lawyers. Let the little girl display her cross.