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Education Reporter

God Walks a Fine Line in Schools
If you wonder exactly what public school students, teachers, administrators and school boards can say and do about religion, you are not alone. The law in this area is notoriously fluid, frequently changing with new federal court decisions.

In 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited administrators and faculty from organizing or leading prayers or Bible study groups in public schools, basing its decision on the Constitution's Establishment Clause. Numerous not-always-reconcilable high court decisions followed over the past 40 years, some of which have necessitated striking a balance between the Establishment Clause and other First Amendment concerns including free speech and free exercise of religion.

Federal guidelines  
Current federal Education Department guidelines explain that the First Amendment allows a student to pray in school so long as it is not disruptive, to distribute religious literature on the same basis as other literature, and to try to persuade peers about religious topics. Supreme Court decisions bar school-organized prayer at graduation, celebration of Christian holidays, and teaching religious doctrine.

Students can don a Jesus T-shirt, pray before class and moralize about the Ten Commandments, but a teacher can't publicly endorse or condemn these practices.

Under a 2001 Supreme Court decision, religious groups must have the same access to school premises as other groups. (See Teacher Wins Suit to Lead After-School Bible Lessons.)

In October, the Supreme Court accepted a case involving the display of the Ten Commandments in school. Stay tuned.

Recent clashes 
Clashes inevitably occur over specific issues. The Shelby County, TN school board flouted political correctness by voting last January to call the mid-year vacation "Christmas break" on the school calendar. The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee called the move shocking. (commercialappeal.com, 1-30-04)

A Dupo, IL senior was suspended from his school's TV broadcast for a month for saying "God bless" last December (see Education Reporter, Mar. 2004), but was reinstated by the school board at a meeting packed with the student's supporters. The board president said the board doesn't have a problem with an occasional "God bless" over the air as long as it isn't a staple of the show. The American Center for Law and Justice was prepared to file a federal lawsuit on the student's behalf if the outcome had been different. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1-27-04)

A federal appeals court ruled in July that a South Carolina municipal council may no longer offer Christian invocations before monthly meetings. The 4th Circuit ruling in favor of a Wicca practitioner threatens the practice in some Southern communities of starting school board meetings with Christian prayers. Supreme Court precedents allow a legislative body to invoke divine guidance before engaging in public business, but not to affiliate itself with a specific faith. (Education Week, 8-11-04)

The East Hanover, NJ school board narrowly voted in May to fly a small white flag that says "One Nation Under God" at each of three schools and the administration building. The flags were provided by the Knights of Columbus to show support for U.S. troops overseas. The East Hanover township council unanimously approved a similar request for municipal buildings. The school board's move was denounced by a representative of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. (New Jersey Star-Ledger, 5-5-04)

Bible course okayed 
In Boca Raton, FL, a high school has begun offering Biblical studies elective classes in order to teach "the most influential book or document in Western civilization," not to impose Christianity on students, according to the principal. The Supreme Court and the state department of education permit such courses. An offended science teacher at the school objected that "a high school teacher who knows enough about the Bible to teach it must believe it to be true." (PalmBeachPost.com, 2-26-04)

More court decisions 
A federal district court in Virginia held in October that the Loudon County school district engaged in prohibited viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment when it removed bricks displaying a cross from a "walkway of fame" inscribed with students' names and achievements while allowing bricks displaying secular symbols. The displays were funded by donors. Having created the walkway as a limited public forum, the district could not deny donors the opportunity to highlight the achievement of students in matters of faith or religion when it allowed recognition of athletic, academic or other achievements, the court stated.

In a similar case, a federal district court in August sided with an Arizona family who purchased wall tiles for a school fund-raiser, bearing the message "God bless [name], We love you Mom & Dad." The Pinnacle Peak Elementary School principal refused to display the tiles, citing concerns about separation of church and state. Following the parents' victory in the trial court, the school district settled and agreed to pay some of the parents' legal fees. However, it will comsider a policy prohibiting anything more than names on future murals.

Peter Sentala, an attorney for the parents, observed that religion cannot be forced by school officials on students, but parents and students can make religious statements. "Public schools are not religion-free zones," he said. (eastvalleytribune.com, 10-28-04)

A federal judge in October ordered the Ann Arbor, MI public school system to pay the legal fees of a student who was prevented from expressing her belief that homosexuality is wrong during her school's annual "Diversity Week." The six-figure award to the Thomas More Law Center, which brought suit on behalf of the student, followed the court's decision last December that the school had violated the Establishment Clause and her right to free speech and equal protection. (See Education Reporter, July 2004.)

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