Scholar, attorney work to promote religious freedom in Utah schools

Monday, June 15, 1998

As public school teachers and administrators continue to worry about what they can and cannot legally do regarding religious expression, The Freedom Forum’s senior scholar and a religious-liberty attorney addressed teachers and administrators from Utah school districts last week.

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, and Oliver Thomas, a religious-liberty attorney, told administrators and teachers from rural and suburban school districts that the First Amendment does not require their schools to be religion-free zones.

“We now have a legal consensus nationally about religious speech, distribution of religious literature, religious clubs and other issues,” Haynes said. “Now we must help local administrators and teachers to understand what is and is not permissible. The good news is that we can find common ground without lawsuits and fights.”

Haynes and Thomas spoke to teachers and administrators from Salt Lake City school districts, such as Tooele and Murray, and from seven rural school districts in the Richfield area. The sessions were part of an initiative started last year in cooperation with the state’s education department. The initiative, called the Utah Three R’s Project (Rights, Responsibilities and Respect), centers on helping public school officials understand the First Amendment’s religious-liberty clauses and the proper role for religion in the public schools.

Marcia Beauchamp, The Freedom Forum’s coordinator of religious-liberty projects, said Haynes and Thomas would train teachers and administrators in every public school district in the state. Haynes, Thomas and Utah’s board of education have completed 25% to 30% of the training.

One suburban administrator asked Thomas on Friday how to deal with a Muslim student who was in danger of not graduating for refusing to participate in physical education for religions reasons. Work with the student’s parents to come up with an alternative, Thomas said, rather than forcing her to choose between graduating and her religious beliefs. School administrators are free to offer students course alternatives, such as community service, Thomas said.

Beauchamp said her sense was that the teachers and administrators were already predisposed to searching for ways to accommodate religious beliefs instead of letting the judicial system decide.