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Religion in the U.S. public schools

Sampling of events from 2003 until now

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Recent court cases, negotiations, and state laws affecting prayer activities inside public school buildings are listed below. Other court rulings on separation of church and state issues outside the school building are listed elsewhere. These include prayer at public school sports events, graduation ceremonies etc. Some of these laws are clearly unconstitutional. They place local school boards in a difficult position. If they refuse to implement these laws, their funding may be cut. If they follow the laws, opposition by the public may be intense. They also become vulnerable to lawsuits that they will undoubtedly lose. The cost of these court actions could impoverish small school districts.

Hopefully, in the future, the outcome of cases of this type will become so predictable that lawsuits will not need to be filed.

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bullet2003-JAN-8: NJ: Freedom of speech issue: Students prohibited from giving gifts: Daniel Walz was told by the principal of his public elementary school in New Jersey that he could not give out pencils inscribed with the message "Jesus loves the little children." during Easter season in 1998-APR. In 1998-DEC, he was prohibited from distributing candy canes with a Bible message during a party. His classmates were permitted to hand out non-religious gifts. He was told that he would have to distribute the canes outside of the school building before or after classes. Stephen Aden, spokesperson for the Fundamentalist Christian group, the Rutherford Institute, said that: "He was told he couldn't pass those [items] out because school officials were afraid that parents would get wind of it and think that the school was promoting Christianity. So it's clearly a case of discriminatory treatment on the basis of Daniel's Christian faith." On Jan-8, oral arguments were heard by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Appeals Court in Philadelphia on behalf of Daniel Walz and his mother Dana. A ruling is expected in the spring. 1

bullet2003-JAN-14: MA: Freedom of speech issue: Six students suspended: Six high school students attending Westfield High School are members of the school's L.I.F.E. Bible club.  Both school Principal Thomas Daley and Superintendent Thomas McDowell refused the club's request to distribute candy canes during non-class time. The reason given is that other students might find the Bible verses on the canes "offensive." They handed out the canes anyway, and were each suspended for a day. Liberty Counsel, a Fundamentalist Christian legal defense agency has filed a lawsuit with a federal court to declare the school's literature-distribution policy unconstitutional. Spokesperson Mat Staver said: "One of our clients is a National Honor Society student. She's a senior seeking scholarship and entry to universities and colleges this year. A suspension of this nature would devastate her future career opportunities." Another student has applied to the U.S. Air Force Academy; a suspension would probably block him as well. Staver called the actions of the school officials "blatantly hostile and anti-Christian.... "It is very evident that instead of applauding the fine students who are academic achievers, they instead have sought to suspend them solely for distributing a candy cane that contains Bible verses and Christian messages. That is horrendous -- [and] it's unthinkable that in today's society these kinds of students would face suspension. But that's in fact what these school officials have done." There is no indication in the media reports that this is an anti-Christian response by the school administration. It appears to be a simple refusal to recognize the free speech rights of students in the area of religion. 2

bullet2003-FEB-7: USA: Federal government threatens public school funding: The federal Department of Education issued a policy statement similar to those published by the previous Clinton administration. It emphasizes that public schools must allow student-led and student-initiated prayers if done outside of regular class hours. But they cannot implement compulsory school prayers in the classroom. Education Secretary Rod Paige wrote: "Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families. At the same time, school officials may not compel students to participate in prayer or other activities." The statement mentioned that teachers may "take part in religious activities where the overall context makes clear that they are not participating in their official capacities."  They may meet with each other "before school or during lunch" for prayer and Bible study, and "may participate in their personal capacities in privately sponsored baccalaureate ceremonies." The guidelines also require that students at assemblies and graduation ceremonies may not be restricted in expressing religion as long as they were chosen as speakers through "neutral, evenhanded criteria." The statement notes that to avoid controversy, schools may issue disclaimers clarifying that such speech does not represent the school's official position. 
bulletMathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel -- a Fundamentalist Christian legal defense group -- said: "I'm very excited about the clarity, and very optimistic that these guidelines will go a long way in solving issues related to students' religious speech. We will use these actively in dealing with schools, and we'll use them in cases we're litigating as well."
bulletReggie Felton, spokesperson for the National School Boards Association said that the guidelines may generate additional confusion. He said that allowing teachers to openly pray outside of classroom time may cause problems, particularly if it is not clear that they are doing it unofficially, as individuals, outside their teaching roles.
bulletEllen Johnson, President of American Atheists, wrote: "The emphasis here, as usual, is on 'religious rights.' Although the DOE guidelines claim that government is not endorsing or promoting religion, vague and misleading language is sure to result in the types of abuses we've been seeing in public schools against those who do not wish to engage in religious activities." She asked: "Will students believe that their grades may be affected by joining activities where a teacher is present, such as 'See You At The Pole' or a Bible study group?  And what about indirect pressure from teachers who reward religious students, and even penalize those who don't participate?" 3,4
bullet2003-JUL-14: AZ: Religious plaques removed from Grand Canyon: U.S. park officials removed three bronze plaques from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, at Hermit's Rest, Lookout Studio and Desert View Watchtower scenic overlooks. They are inscribed with passages from the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament): Psalms 68:4, 66:4 and 104:24. They will be returned to the donors, the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Phoenix, AZ. Maureen Oltrogge, a Grand Canyon National Park spokesperson said: "They are religious plaques on federal buildings and that's not allowed based on the law." The Sisterhood issued a statement which said, in part: "We hope and pray that a suitable alternative location will be found for the plaques, so that they will continue to be an asset to the park and a blessing for future visitors." The signs had drawn a few comments over the 33 years that they were in place. However, the U.S. Interior Department reviewed them after a letter was received in 2003-FEB from the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The Department determined that the plaques violated the principle of separation of church and state. 5
 

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bullet2003-JUL-24: AZ: Plaques restored: David Barna, a National Park Service spokesman, said that the three plaques had been reinstalled pending legal advice. He said: "We need to take a step back and look at this. We'll need some help." Sister Pinea Zarkos, a spokeswoman for the Sisterhood of Mary -- the owner of the plaques -- said: "We are very happy they are back up and giving glory back to God again. We are all praying now that they will remain up."

bullet2003-OCT-1: TN: Student suspended over creationism: A grade eight student at the Colonial Heights Middle School in Kingsport TN was suspended because she failed to follow an order to stop discussing religion in class. The problem began in science class when the teacher was discussing the big-bang theory about the origin of the universe. Some students objected, saying that it conflicted with their religious beliefs. The teacher told them that she could not lead a religious discussion in science class. Principle William Cline is reported as saying that this led to a rumor mill concerning the teacher's religious beliefs that was harmful to the teacher and disrupted learning.  Cline is reported as saying that when a student allegedly encouraged another pupil to put a religious pamphlet on the teacher's desk, the teacher "felt like it was a form of harassment." The student was suspended. 6

bullet2004-APR-7: U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear case: Focus on the Family, a fundamentalist Christian group, reported that the U.S. Supreme Court has chosen to not hear a case involving mealtime prayers at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), an institution that is funded by the government. By doing this, the court let stand a prior appeals court ruling which found the prayers to be unconstitutional. A number of cadets had challenged the tradition of mealtime prayers which had its origins with the founding of the school in 1839. Prayers have been discontinued since 2001. Carrie Cantrell, a spokeswoman for Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, defended the prayer tradition. She said that the court's "...inaction on this issue creates a tear in the fabric of our country." She described the prayer which ends "Now, O God, we receive this food and share this meal together with thanksgiving. Amen," as nonsectarian -- i.e. acceptable to all faith groups and specific to none. However, she appears to be in error. There are many religious groups (e.g. Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Humanists) who have no concept of deity. There are other groups who recognize multiple deities, not a single God. There are those, like Deists, who believe in a God but who believe in one that is not necessarily open to communication with humans. This prayer would probably be unsatisfactory to these groups. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the fundamentalist Christian American Center for Law and Justice, was disappointed. He said: "Here you've got a voluntary prayer at a military institution; everyone there is over the age of majority, so they're adults. And yet the Supreme Court lets stand a decision which says the prayer is unconstitutional. They've missed a big opportunity, and it's really disappointing."

Conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote a dissent critical of the justices who gave the majority decision. 7

bullet2005-MAY-18: FL: Graduation ceremonies to be held in a church: Four high schools in Florida will be holding commencement ceremonies in the Calvary Chapel in Melbourne, FL beneath a huge cross. The judge did state that the School Board of Brevard County should have held the ceremonies at a religiously neutral location. However, he concluded that there was insufficient time to relocate them for the current year. A lawsuit, Musgrove v. School Board of Brevard County, will proceed to determine whether the Board will be allowed to hold ceremonies in a religious settings in future years. Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said: "We are disappointed that graduating students will have to attend church to receive their diplomas. Nonetheless, the judge did side with us on the key constitutional issues involved and said this case will go forward. We must ensure that next year's graduation ceremonies will not be held in a church sanctuary beneath a huge cross. These are public school events that should not be conducted in a place where some families feel unwelcome." 8

bullet2006-MAR-02: MO: House resolution about the integration of church and state: By a vote of 5 to 3, a Missouri House resolution HCR-13 integrating religion and state passed out of the House Rules Committee. It states that "voluntary prayer in public schools, religious displays on public property, and the recognition of a Christian God are not a coalition of church and state." More details.

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2007-OCT-05: PA: Reading of Bible verses before federal appeals court: In 2004, public school officials at Culbertston Elementary School in Newton Square, PA refused Donna K. Busch permission to read from the Book of Psalms during an exercise in which parents were asked to share a talent, game, craft or story with the class. Her son was a member of the class at the time. With the help of the Rutherford Institute, a fundamentalist Christian legal defense group, she sued the school alleging that her freedom of speech and freedom of religion were violated. An expert witness during the trial testified that the verses she wanted to recite,  Psalm 118:1-4 and verse 14, are evangelistic in nature, an were "... a powerful tool for proselytizing by the Christian community." She lost at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The Rutherford Institute appealed the case to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said that the court should reject the appeal. He said:

"Parents do not have a constitutional right to preach to impressionable children in a public school. Schools can and should take steps to ensure that children of all faiths and none are welcome. If parents wish to read the Bible to their own children, they are free to do so at home." 10


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2009-JUN-01: PA: Ruling by 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals: By a vote of 2 to 1, the court upheld the earlier decision of the federal District Court. Anthony Joseph Scirica, chief judge of the appeals court, wrote:

"The public school setting may implicate the Establishment Clause, especially where public authority undertakes or is reasonably perceived to have undertaken to give one religious belief official approval or approval over other religious beliefs." ... And this tension is particularly vexing in a public school where attendance is compulsory and moral and social values are being developed along with basic learning skills. In seeking to address that tension, elementary school administrators and teachers should be given latitude within a range of reasonableness related to preserving the school’s educational goals." 11


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2014-SEP-25: USPA: Gallup : Poll results on prayer in public schools: Gallup found that a substantial majority of American adults favor scheduled school prayer in the classroom. However, the decrease in support and increase in opposition noted in previous years continues. 12 Results:

Date of poll % favoring scheduled school prayer % opposing scheduled school prayer
2014-AUG
61
37
2001-FEB
66
34
2000-SEP
68
30
1999-JUN
70
28

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Related essays on this web site:

bulletThe national motto: "In God we Trust."

bulletSchool prayer: menu

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References:

  1. Allie Martin, "Case of Christian 'Candy Cane' Kid Comes Up in Court," Agape Press, 2003-JAN-10, at: http://headlines.agapepress.org/
  2. Jim Brown, "School Sweets Lead to Suspensions; Bible Club Members File Lawsuit," Agape Press, 2003-JAN-10, at: http://headlines.agapepress.org
  3. "Schools risk funding if they bar prayers," CNN.com at: http://www.cnn.com/2003/EDUCATION/02/07/school.prayer.ap/index.html
  4. "New prayer guides from D. of E. push religion, threaten school funding," American Atheists AANews, 2003-FEB-11.
  5. "Biblical verses removed from Grand Canyon," Reuters, 2003-JUL-14, at: http://www.cnn.com/
  6. "Eighth-grader suspended over religious pamphlet," Knoxville News Sentinel, 2003-OCT-1, at: http://www.knoxnews.com/
  7. Stuart Shepard, "Military Academy Prayer Still Forbidden," Family News in Focus, 2004-APR-27, at: http://www.family.org/
  8. "Florida Judge Allows Graduation Ceremonies At Church This Year, But Lawsuit Will Proceed," Americans United, 2005-MAY-18, at: http://www.au.org/
  9. Tim Townsend, "Mo. House considers Christian resolution," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2006-MAR-07, at: http://www.stltoday.com/
  10. "Public Schools May Protect Kindergarten Students From Proselytism, Americans United Advises Court," Americans United, 2007-OCT-03, at: http://www.au.org/
  11. "Court: School 'Not Unreasonable' in Barring Bible Reading," Christian Post, 2009-JUN-02, at: http://www.christianpost.com/
  12. Rebecca Riffkin, "In U.S., Support for Daily Prayer in Schools Dips Slightly," Gallup, 2014-SEP-25, at: http://www.gallup.com/

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Home page > Christianity > Christian history > Prayer > School prayer > here

or: Home page > Law menu > School prayer > here

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Copyright 2003 to 2014 by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Created: 2003-JAN-15
Latest update 2014-SEP-28

Author: B.A. Robinson

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