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Education Reporter

Returning Religious Freedom to the Classroom
U.S. Education Department issues guidelines on school prayer

WASHINGTON, DC - By the 15th of this month, local education agencies (LEAs) must certify in writing to their state education agencies (SEAs) that they are in compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law in allowing constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools. Failure to do so could jeopardize schools' eligibility to receive federal funds. After March 15, 2003, each LEA must provide this certification to the SEA by October 1 of each subsequent year that the LEA participates in a federal Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA) program.

The U.S. Department of Education issued "guidance" on this issue on Feb. 7. In a cover letter introducing the document, Education Secretary Rod Paige stated that "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."

Paige's letter noted that "students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other noninstructional time to the same extent that may engage in nonreligious activities."

The document points out that "this guidance has been jointly approved by the office of the General Counsel in the Department of Education and the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice as reflecting the current state of the law." The Education Department will make the guidelines available on its website (www.ed.gov).

Highlights of the document include: 

  • The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution both prevents the government from establishing religion and protects privately initiated religious expression and activities from government interference and discrimination. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer. 
  • Students may pray when not engaged in school activities or instruction, subject to the same rules designed to prevent material disruption of the educational program that are applied to other privately initiated expressive activities.  
  • Students may organize prayer groups, religious clubs, and "see you at the pole" gatherings before school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other non-curricular student activities groups. 
  • Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions. This work should be judged by ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance. 
  • Prayer or religious expression at graduation that is not attributable to the school may not be restricted because of its religious (or anti-religious) content.

The new guidelines will undoubtedly be welcomed by many parents and pro-family groups who have argued for years that schools unconstitutionally bar children from writing about religious figures, choosing Bible stories for reading projects, or mentioning God in graduation addresses.

Mat Staver, president and general counsel of the non-profit legal organization Liberty Counsel, predicts that the new guidelines "will be a blessing to students and teachers. The message is simple - school officials must stop discriminating against students and teachers who choose to pray or engage in religious expression."

In July 1995, the U.S. Education Department issued a "statement" on religious freedom in public schools containing similar language to that of the new guidelines. (See Education Reporter, December 1995.) This time,however, local and state education agencies are required to certify their compliance with the directive or face the loss of federal funds.

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