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RELIGIOUS HARASSMENT

IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS

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Students are in a particularly vulnerable situation while at public schools. Teachers can and do harass students who express their religious faith. Fortunately, there is a "wall of separation" between church and state which theoretically prohibits the public schools from taking any action to either promote or discourage religious faith. For example, if a school permits student political or hobby clubs of any sort, then they must also permit students to organize Bible study or other religious courses. Schools are free to teach about religious beliefs. Their courses can describe the positive and negative effects that religion has had on society. But they are required to give a balanced presentation and are not permitted to favor one faith group over another. Nor are they allowed to favor religious faith over no religious faith.

Unfortunately, the laws are not necessarily followed by all teachers, principals and school districts. Part of the problem is a misunderstanding by school officials of their obligations under the constitution. Some feel that all religion is banned throughout the system; they have reacted by violating the student's constitutional rights of freedom of speech, assembly or religion. For example, Christian children have been prohibited from bringing their Bibles to school, or forbidden to pray before a meal. These conflicts can normally be cleared up with little effort. Many Christian litigation groups are actively involved in this area. The Rutherford Institute is believed to be the largest such organization. They have stated:"[M]any cases can be solved with a strong and professional letter from an attorney, a legal memorandum from our office, or a phone call from a staff member."  

Various amendments to the US constitution have been proposed that would have the effect of reducing this wall of separation and thus expose students to great harassment. Representative Ernest Istook (R-OK) introduced a "Religious Liberties" amendment on 1995-NOV-28. It has received increasing attention in 1996 and 1997.

In some areas of the United States, particularly those where the overwhelming percentage of people follow the same religion, the school system may take on the religious nature of the surrounding area and actively promote a religion or a particular branch of a religion. This makes life very difficult for students who are of another religion. They can be seriously and continually harassed. Other students often react by physically attacking or ridiculing those of minority faiths.

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Example of Religious Harassment

The American Civil Liberties Union issued a press release on 1997-AUG-14 relating to the persecution of Jewish students within the Alabama School System. A law suit was launched on 1997-AUG-4 against the Pike County School Board and administrators for allegedly:
bulletviolating the constitutional right of the students' free exercise of religion
bulletnot taking action to stop the religiously based harassment, intimidation and threats against the students
bulletviolating the constitutional prohibition against school endorsement of religion.
The suit will be heard in the U. S. District Court for the Middle District in Alabama. It involves four Jewish children of one family who attended both elementary and high schools in the county. Types of harassment allegations include:
bulletbeing denied the right to practice their faith while other students freely practice theirs
bulletbeing denied the right to express their religious beliefs
bulletbeing forced to participate in Christian assemblies and classroom activities.
bulletbeing the victims of religious bigotry and hate crimes perpetrated by other students
bulletnot experiencing any effort by faculty, administrators and school board members to stop the alleged persecution
Their parents have complained to personnel at all levels in the school system, from teachers to the school board. During one appeal, a school superintendent allegedly suggested that the continual harassment would end if the family would convert to Christianity. A teacher explained "If parents will not save souls, we have to."

Specific allegations of include:
bulletAlthough Christian students were allowed to wear crosses, the Jewish children were forbidden to wear Star of David lapel pins. The teacher claimed it was a gang symbol.
bulletThe students were not permitted in physical education classes while wearing their yarmulkes (religious head covering).
bulletTwo of the Jewish children were physically assaulted by other students because of their religion
bulletSwastikas have been drawn on their lockers, bookbags and jackets
bulletThe Jewish children were ordered by teachers to bow their heads during Christian prayers, even though the teachers knew that the children were Jewish. Once, force was used.
bulletA Jewish child who had disrupted class was ordered to write an essay titled "Why Jesus Loves Me."
bulletOvertly Christian religious classroom activities and assembly presentations are common
bulletA local minister told the students at a school assembly that anyone who had not accepted Jesus as Savior was doomed to hell. A Jewish child left the assembly while her classmates jeered. She suffered nightmares for weeks.
Pamela Sumners, cooperating attorney for ACLU Of Alabama said: "These harmful and hateful acts are the product of a culture of religious bigotry which permeates the Pike County school system...They have been perpetrated or tacitly endorsed by the very officials who are duty-bound to operate our schools in a manner which comports with the Constitution and morally bound to operate the schools so that all children are treated equally and with respect."

The mother of the Jewish children commented: "Every day that I send my children to Pike County schools, I wonder if I am sending them into a war zone. Every day that I send my children to Pike County schools, I feel that the environment threatens every value that my husband and I have tried to teach them at home. I have asked school officials how I can teach my children to be tolerant human beings and not bigots when they are subjected to outright religious persecution and bigotry in school."

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Reference:

Case: Paul Michael Herring v. Dr. John Key, Superintendent of Pike County Schools. News release issued on 1997-AUG-14 by American Civil Liberties Union.

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Copyright 1998 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2000-JUN-4
Author: B.A. Robinson

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