Heavy-handed bans on God in public schools triggered a number of lawsuits and/or parental protests in the last few months. Disputes centered on talent show songs, dance music, after-school clubs, and paper messages or fliers, proving that no activity is too trivial to warrant the intervention of modern-day inquisitors seeking to stamp out religious allusions.
A New Jersey school prohibited a 2nd-grader from singing a religious song at a talent show in May, prompting the girl's parents to file a lawsuit in federal court with the aid of the Alliance Defense Fund. Olivia Turton, 8, hoped to sing the pop song "Awesome God" at an evening performance show, but was told she could not sing it.
The Frenchtown Elementary School principal explained to the girl's mother that the religious content made the song inappropriate at school, according to the petition charging violation of Olivia's constitutional rights to freedom of speech and due process.
The song includes the following lyrics deemed too controversial for the talent show: "Our God is an awesome God/He reigns from heaven above/with wisdom, pow'r and love/Our God is an awesome God."
Dancing to Bach a no-no
A San Diego dance teacher actually lost her job after a complaint by a school staff member that she used religious music in her instruction. In addition to secular music on the day in question, the instructor used the Latin vocal work "Dona Nobis Pacem" by J.S. Bach and a Swahili song praising God.
Although the teacher offered to further expand her diverse music repertoire, school officials terminated her contract. The Pacific Justice Institute has taken the teacher's case before the school district. "It is clearly constitutional and legal for a teacher to use both religious and secular music as a part of instruction," commented institute president Brad Dacus.
Plano extends olive branch
The Plano, TX school district, facing a federal lawsuit filed after a series of official prohibitions of materials such as candy-cane pens with a religious message distributed by pupils at a school holiday party, approved a policy change in April as a concession to the plaintiffs. Students may now exchange religious and other messages at certain times of the schoolday and in certain areas without official pre-approval.
Elementary students may exchange items before and after school in certain areas, and during recess and designated school parties. Secondary students have more opportunities, including in the hallways.
The former distribution policy allowed exchange only of pre-approved materials and only by leaving them on a particular table in the school. The school board voted unanimously to loosen that policy four months after parents filed suit last December with the aid of Liberty Legal Institute. (For background on the Plano lawsuit, see Education Reporter, Feb. 2005.)
Good News Clubs victory
The Marysville School District in Washington State backed off in May from charging religious clubs higher fees for use of school facilities than it charged secular clubs. The district had claimed that state law required it to charge the Good News Clubs more because the club is religious.
A letter from Liberty Counsel persuaded the district to reverse its position and return past excessive fees. The Good News Clubs are elementary after-school clubs that teach morality and character development from a Christian perspective.
God edited out of Pledge
Students in a Colorado school were confused when a counselor changed a portion of the Pledge of Allegiance from "one nation under God" to "one nation under your belief system" on the public-address system in April. A 7th-grader at Everitt Middle School in Wheat Ridge told his parents, who complained to the counselor as well as the principal who was absent when the incident occurred.
The mother, Christina Pulciani-Johnson, reported that the counselor initially defended her wording of the Pledge. "She said, 'Yes, I said that because I believe that there should be separation between church and school. I believe that everybody should have their own beliefs and that we shouldn't have to say "under God." ' "
The principal and the school system subsequently apologized for the counselor's unauthorized change to the Pledge. (Denver Post, 4-22-05)
The Pledge previously made headlines in Colorado in March, when voters in Estes Park recalled a councilman who refused to stand for the Pledge during town meetings because he objected to the words "under God."
School Bible readings
A few public schools are starting to add Bible readings to their curriculum. In Boca Raton, FL, two high schools are requiring Bible readings over the summer for 11th-grade English students, the better to understand Biblical references in early American literature. (sun-sentinel.com, 5-26-05)
The Odessa, TX school board voted unanimously in April to add a Bible class to its high school curriculum after receiving a petition signed by 6,000 residents. The class would be taught as a history or literature course. (Washington Post, 4-27-05)
"Shakespeare and the Bible in English are the twin foundations of English literature," David Gelernter observed in the Los Angeles Times (5-27-05). Nevertheless the American Civil Liberties Union routinely discourages school districts from adopting such courses by implying that they are unconstitutional.
Other court rulings
- A federal appeals court in March upheld federal tuition vouchers for a teacher-training program at the University of Notre Dame that places educators in needy Catholic schools. Reversing the district court decision, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals panel noted that the Supreme Court has upheld programs of "true private choice" as constitutional under the Establishment Clause.
- A different federal appeals court panel held last October that school districts in Maine are not required by the U.S. Constitution to pay tuition for students at religious high schools even when they pay for secular private schools.
- Most claims filed by a teacher against California's Cupertino Union School District were dismissed by a federal district judge in April. The teacher claimed he was barred from using excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and other historical documents in his classrooms because of their references to God and Christianity. (See Education Reporter, Jan. 2005.) His remaining claim that the district violated the Equal Protection Clause by imposing more stringent restrictions on him than on other teachers because he is a Christian will be heard this fall.
Equal access for fliers
- A New Jersey school district must allow distribution of fliers by a Christian organization at a back-to-school night on the same basis as other community organizations, according to a Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision last October affirming a preliminary injunction.
- A lawsuit charging that the UC-Hastings law school must recognize a campus Christian group even though it bars gay members will head for trial this fall on certain First Amendment claims, following a decision by a federal district judge tossing out other claims in April. (See Education Reporter, Dec. 2004.)
- Having relied on the federal Equal Access Act to promote equal access to official sponsorship for gay student clubs on campus, the ACLU filed an amicus brief arguing that the Truth Bible Club is not allowed similar access, according to the Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing the Bible club. The club sued after the student government rejected it because it required all members to adhere to a code of Christian conduct and required voting members to sign a statement of faith.