Students’ religious expression has rightful place in public schools

Sunday, October 8, 2000

Does the First Amendment ban any mention of Jesus in elementary public schools? Incidents in three states last week suggest that some teachers and administrators still think the answer is “yes.”

In the beginning of the week, I received a call from an Alabama
district. The superintendent had just turned down a request by a community
member to start an after-school club for students at the local elementary
school. Why? Because the club would address issues from a Christian

As the week progressed, I heard from parents in Texas and New York
about disputes involving student speech during the school day.

According to a mother in the Texas district, her third-grade child was
told that she couldn't do her report on Jesus, even though the assignment was
for students to write about an historical hero or heroine of their

Meanwhile in New York, another mother related that her child was told
by a fourth-grade teacher not to talk about Jesus in school. Apparently, the
girl told a boy (who was swearing) that he needed to have Jesus in his heart
and that if he didn't, he would go to you-know-where. The teacher labeled this

Each of these cases illustrates how difficult it is to get beyond our
long history of fighting about the place of religion in public schools,
especially if the religion at issue is Christianity. On the one hand, many
parents fear a return to the days of Protestant-dominated public schools, while
on the other hand, numerous Christian parents see public schools as hostile to
their faith.

The legal guidelines distributed to public schools earlier this year
by the U.S. Department of Education are supposed to provide common-ground
answers. But many school officials either ignore the guidelines or are unsure
about how to apply them in real-life situations.

Nowhere is this truer than in elementary schools. When young,
impressionable children are involved, many school officials are particularly
careful to avoid giving the impression that the school is either promoting or
denigrating religion.

While such caution is needed to uphold the First Amendment, care
should also be taken to ensure that “neutrality” doesn't turn into

Consider the request in Alabama for an after-school club run by
community members. If other community groups use the school's facilities during
non-school hours, then the district can't exclude a club just because it has a
religious viewpoint.

Fortunately, the superintendent got the message (aided by a letter
from a public-interest law firm). By the end of the week, the Christian group
was told that it could use the school building on the same basis as other
community groups.

I haven't heard the outcome of the other two incidents. But if the
school districts want to do the right thing — and avoid expensive lawsuits —
they'll reverse the poor decisions made by the teachers.

The Texas case is the easier to address. If a child can pick any
important figure from history, then selecting Jesus — or any other major
religious figure — clearly fulfills the assignment. In fact, to permit
students to choose from all great historical figures except religious leaders
would violate First Amendment principles of fairness and neutrality.

Giving a report about Jesus isn't the same as proselytizing or giving
a sermon. It means writing about what Christians believe concerning the founder
of their faith. As long as the report meets the academic standards set by the
teacher, it should be allowed.

In the second case, it's easy to understand the New York teacher's
concern for preserving harmony in the classroom. But that doesn't mean teachers
should censor the religious speech of students.

If this fourth-grade student was not disrupting class or coercing
anyone, then she should have been permitted to state her views about Jesus.
“Harassment” is a pattern of activity that persists even though the
person on the receiving end has said “No” or “Leave me
alone.” I fail to see how simply stating a religious conviction could be
viewed as harassment.

Of course, public-school teachers want children to be civil to one
another and to share their views in ways that don't cause anger or hurt. But
that can't mean excluding religious views on the grounds that other students
might be offended.

Instead, teachers should help students to understand that we live in a nation with diverse religious views, and that under the First Amendment, we all have the right to share our views with one another. The line we draw in a public-school setting is drawn to prevent coercion, harassment or disruption — not to prevent speech.

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