Students have a right to religious expression in public schools

Sunday, March 12, 2000

Students in public schools aren't shy about saying what they think. And some of what they think is religious.

How are school officials handing “God talk” in the classroom? Two recent conflicts give us the proverbial good news, bad news about the current treatment of student religious expression in public schools.

First the good news.

Three high-school girls near Seattle were allowed to sing a gospel song at a school assembly on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

That wouldn't be so remarkable except for the fact that the administration reversed itself — something principals, like umpires, are loath to do.

At first, school officials feared that members of the audience might object to hearing a religious message. But upon reconsideration (and some public outcry), the school decided that eliminating religious music from a program honoring a Baptist minister didn't make much sense.

Now for the bad news.

A public school in New York refused to allow an elementary student's artwork to be displayed because it had religious content, and last month a federal judge upheld the school, ruling that the student's drawings didn't fulfill the teacher's assignment.

It all started when the teacher asked the students to create posters illustrating what they had learned about protecting the environment. She promised that their work would be displayed on a wall in the school.

One seven-year old boy handed in a poster with Christian themes and the message “the only way to save the world.” He was told to try again. His second effort was a drawing of children picking up litter in front of a church and a kneeling man with hands outstretched to the sky. The teacher accepted the second poster, but would only display it after folding over the part with the kneeling man.

The teacher objected to the posters on two grounds. First, she argued, they didn't respond to the assignment. And second, if she put them on the wall, other kids or their parents might think that the school was endorsing a religious message.

I'm a big supporter of teachers (and their right to control what goes on in the classroom). But both of these arguments strike me as exaggerated and unreasonable.

First, this student clearly believes that the answer to the question of how to save the environment is religious. What's wrong with letting him express that view? Are only secular answers valid or acceptable?

And second, it's hard for me to imagine that any observer — child or adult — would assume that the school is “endorsing” religion because of a child's crayon drawing on a wall with many other drawings.

The school's stand appears to contradict the advice from the U.S. Department of Education on student religious expression in public schools. According to the department's guidelines, “students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.”

But it's the next sentence in the guidelines that some school officials use to justify eliminating religious expression: “Such home and classroom work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, and against other legitimate pedagogical concerns identified by the school.”

In this case, the teacher's claims that the posters had not fulfilled the assignment and could be construed to endorse religion were accepted by the court as “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

It only takes one bad case like this to convince many Americans that public schools have become “religion-free zones” where any mention of God is prohibited.

Fortunately, the majority of public-school teachers allow students to express their faith in their assignments. But that's not good enough. Every school should have a policy in place that directs teachers to treat religious expression by students with fairness and respect.