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RELIGION IN THE U.S. PUBLIC SCHOOLS

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS: 1995 to 1999

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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, they become vulnerable to lawsuits that they will undoubtedly lose. The cost of these court actions could impoverish small school districts.

bullet1984: The Federal Equal Access Act was passed. This effects all public secondary schools that receive federal funds. Among other provisions, it requires that religious clubs be permitted in public schools, if other clubs which are also not related to the curriculum are already allowed. These religious groups must be run by the students themselves, and must not be convened during class time. Membership in the group must be voluntary.  More details
bullet1995-APR: Document issued: A coalition of 37 Christian, Humanist, Jewish, Muslim, Scientology, Secular, Sikh, and Unitarian groups, from the American Humanist Association to the National Association of Evangelicals issued a document: "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law." covering topics from student prayers, to religious persuasion and harassment, religious holidays, religious garb, etc. 1
bullet1995-JUL-12: School talk: President Bill Clinton gave a talk to James Madison High School in Vienna, VA. He said in part: "nothing in the 1st Amendment converts our public schools to religion-free zones or requires all religious expression to be left at the schoolhouse door."
bullet1995-AUG-10: Federal guidelines: Responding to a directive from the President, the federal Department of Education issued a memo to public school superintendents which discussed religious freedoms in schools.  Some principles stated are:
bulletstudents can read religious books, say a prayer before meals and pray before tests, etc. to the same extent that they may engage in comparable secular non-disruptive activities.
bulletIn informal settings (cafeterias, hallways, etc.) students may pray and may discuss religious topics with other students, just as they may talk about other subjects.
bulletStudents can proselytize with other students; however they cannot engage in religiously motivated harassment
bulletNo student can be coerced into participating in any religious activity.
bulletTeachers and administrators cannot discourage or promote religious activity because of its religious content; this applies to anti-religious activity as well.
bulletSchools can teach about religion and its role in society; they can teach about the Bible as literature. But they cannot provide religious instruction.
bulletStudents can distribute religious literature in the same way that they are permitted to distribute non-religious literature.
bulletStudents may be released to attend religious classes at other location; teachers and administrators cannot encourage or discourage students from taking advantage of such classes.
bulletSchools can teach about common civic values, but they must be neutral with respect to religion. 2
bullet1995-NOV: An amendment to the US constitution was introduced to congress by Representative Ernest Istook (R-OK) on 1995-NOV-28. It would have over-ruled the traditional separation of church and state and allow school prayer in public schools. His amendment had the support of the Christian Coalition and some other very conservative Christian groups. But it received major opposition from many other Christian groups who value church-state separation. Many non-Christian groups were also greatly concerned about this amendment.
bullet1996-NOV: Mississippi - Supreme Court decision on prayer: The U.S. Supreme Court elected to not review a decision by a Mississippi Federal court. The latter had found a state school prayer law unconstitutional. It had allowed students or teachers to conduct organized prayer sessions at school assemblies, sports events, over the intercom, or in school classrooms. This decision left the Mississippi law unconstitutional.
bullet1998-APR-4: Alabama Law on silent meditation: House bill HB19 in Alabama was passed as Act 98-381. It requires that every public school classroom in the state begin each day with a "brief period of quiet reflection for not more than 60 seconds with the participation of each pupil in the classroom." This same act also repeals Section 16-1-20.1, Code of Alabama 1975, relating to a period of silence for meditation in the public schools. We suspect that the latter had been declared unconstitutional by the courts. The new law took effect on 1998-APR-27.
bullet1998-MAY-29: Federal guidelines on religion: The U.S. Department of Education updated and re-issued the 1995-AUG guidelines. 3,4 Sections that deal with student garb and religious excusals were revised to reflect the Supreme Court's finding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was unconstitutional. Because that act is no longer in force, schools are now freer to decide whether students can wear religious garb such as yarmulkes and head scarves to class. Also schools now can allow or not allow students to be excused from classes that conflict with their religious beliefs. Secretary Riley made three recommendations to local school boards and teachers:
  1. to recognize that in an increasingly diverse religious society that every school board should adopt a policy on religious expression
  2. to inform teachers early on about the role of religion in public schools through workshops and schools of education
  3. to actively inform parents about student's rights to religious expression as well as freedom of conscience.

President Clinton discussed prayers in the public schools in a radio address on 1998-MAY-30. 5

The guidelines were re-issued without change on 1999-DEC-18. They are available online. 6

bullet1998-JUN-4: Federal - Constitutional Amendment: The Istook proposed constitutional amendment had passed through the committee stage, but did not receive the 2/3 majority vote which would have been needed in the House to allow it to proceed to the Senate. Also, on 1998-JUN-4, Senator Inhofe (R-OK) proposed a bill in the Senate which is almost identical to the final wording of the Istook Amendment.
bullet1999-FEB: Michigan - Prayer chapels: Darryl Redmond, a church pastor and the new head of the Detroit Board of Education, is proposing that prayer rooms be established in all Detroit public schools.  Board member Margaret Betts said that such rooms should be created "where a person can go and meditate or pray." She would "be surprised if any other board members" oppose the suggestion. "The day we took prayer out of our school is the day we changed the personality of the whole environment...We've got to bring what's right back." Even if visits to the chapels were optional, it is virtually certain that they will be declared unconstitutional. Chapels or special rooms set aside for religious purposes would require that public money be spent constructing and maintaining the rooms. But of even greater importance is that the chapels' mere existence would violate the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. That portion of the Bill of Rights has been interpreted repeatedly by the courts as prohibiting government endorsement and promotion of religion in the public schools. 7
bullet1999-MAR: New Hampshire prayer bill: House Bill 398 is being sponsored by 8 state legislators. It would allow individual school districts to have students recite the Christian Lord's Prayer in school. As of 1999-MAR, the bill is in the House Education Committee. Comments can be made by calling (603) 271-1110 and asking for the House Education Committee phone.

"194:15-a Lord's Prayer, Silent Individual Reflections and the Pledge of Allegiance in Public Elementary Schools. As a continuation of the policy of teaching our country's history and as an affirmation of the freedom of religion in this country, a school district may authorize the recitation of the traditional Lord's prayer and the pledge of allegiance to the flag in public elementary schools. In addition, a school district may authorize a period of time, after the recitation of the Lord's prayer and the pledge of allegiance to the flag, for silent reflections representative of a pupil's personal religious beliefs. Pupil participation in the recitation of the
prayers and pledge of allegiance shall be voluntary. Pupils shall be reminded that the Lord's prayer is the prayer our pilgrim fathers recited when they came to this country in their search for freedom. Pupils shall be informed that these exercises are not meant to influence an individual's personal religious beliefs in any manner. The exercises shall be conducted so that pupils shall learn of our great freedoms, which freedoms include the freedom or religion and are symbolized by the recitation of the Lord's prayer and other silent religious reflections."
bullet1999-MAR-26: Louisiana - Religious lunch club: ReligionToday reported that Tangipaho Parish in Hammond, LA, allows religious lunch clubs at three of their high schools. All prayers at the club meetings are initiated by students. As noted above, such clubs are allowed and protected by the constitution as long as secular-based clubs are also present at the school. However, they must meet certain requirements. One is that the club cannot be sponsored or led by any person or group outside the school. These clubs were led by Steve Farmer, the director of Face It Ministries. The Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has asked the superintendent to stop the meetings. The clubs will probably continue, but without Farmer's involvement. 
bullet1999-APR-19: Florida prayer bill: House Bill 1773 was passed by the Florida House Judiciary Committee. If made into law, it will allow school districts to impose a "brief opening or closing message, or both" at all noncompulsory activities. This would presumably include school assemblies, football games, graduation ceremonies and similar events. The content of the message was not specified. The original bill was amended to allow "inspirational messages" including "a prayer or invocation," if a majority of students present requested it. Carole shields, president of People for the American Way commented: "There is nothing neutral about this bill. Students of minority faiths should not, and under our Constitution cannot, be forced to choose between missing a school activity or being held captive to the denominational prayers of a majority. This is an offensive and disturbing attack on the First Amendment." 8 On the other hand, many religious folk feel that to not allow prayer when the majority of students want one is religious discrimination, and a restriction on their freedom of speech.
bullet1999-AUG: Indiana - Rental of school facilities by a church: The Northwest Community Church in Crown Point IN had rented facilities at the Solon Robinson School in 1998-AUG. This only happened because officials at the school were not familiar with their school district policy that prohibited churches from renting school classrooms and gymnasiums. The school later refused to rent the facilites. They sued the school district in 1999-JUN, accusing them of violating the church's 1st amendment rights. The Crown Point School District (IN) overturned a 9 year old policy which had prohibited religious groups from meeting on school grounds. 

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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. "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law." at: http://www.ed.gov/Speeches/04-1995/prayer.html#1
  2. Peter Kickbush, "Religious Expression in Public Schools," 1995-AUG-29, at:  http://www.ed.gov/MailingLists/EDInfo/msg00029.html 
  3. White House press release, 1998-MAY-29 at: http://www.ed.gov/PressReleases/05-1998/wh-0530.html
  4. R.W. Riley, "Religious expression in public schools," Department of Education, 1998-MAY, at: http://www.ed.gov/Speeches/08-1995/religion.html
  5. President Clinton's radio address on prayer in the public schools, 1998-MAY-30 at: http://www.pub.whitehouse.gov/uri-res/I2R?urn:pdi:
  6. "Religion and Public Schools,"  Department of Education, at: http://www.ed.gov/inits/religionandschools/ 
  7. Conrad Goeringer, AANEWS release, "Detroit school board pres wants prayer chapels," American Atheists, 1999-FEB-15.
  8. Press release, "Pitting faith against faith: Florida bill would sow division in public schools," People for the American Way, 1999-APR-9

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Copyright 1995 to 2001 incl. by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Created 1995-APR-27
Latest update 2001-NOV-19

Author: B.A. Robinson

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