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Education Reporter

Confusion over First Amendment Rights

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"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," the First Amendment states. It restricts the government from establishing (or prohibiting) religion; it protects, rather than restricts, individuals who wish to exercise their religion, whether in public or in private.

Some teachers and administrators, however, have interpreted the phrase "separation of church and state," which is not in the Constitution, to mean that they have a constitutional duty to stamp out religion wherever it flares up in the student body.

Last fall, the vice-principal of a Maryland public school told 7th-grader Amber Mangum that she wasn't allowed to read a Bible during lunch. The girl regularly read other books during lunch without raising anyone's concern. The Rutherford Institute charged a violation of Mangum's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights in a lawsuit filed in September.

In another recent incident, the principal of an elementary school in Pennsylvania told a 4th-grader and his mother that his Halloween costume was unacceptable. The boy was dressed as Jesus, which the principal said violated the school's (unwritten) religion policy. Teachers told the student to remove his "crown of thorns" and reinvent his costume as "Roman emperor." The boy's mother has filed suit against the school district. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) will represent the boy and his mother and charge violation of his First Amendment rights.

The chance that either of these cases could go against the plaintiffs is very small. The incidents cover no new ground and are hardly distinguishable from many similar cases. Such incidents happen only when school officials know little about students' rights or the meaning of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

In one recently settled case, a U.S. District Court in New Jersey upheld a student's right to use a religious song in her talent show act. The principal had decided the song, "Awesome God," could not play during the talent show because of its "overtly religious message and proselytizing nature." But as the federal court pointed out, the 4th-grader's selection was "the private speech of a student and not a message conveyed by the school itself."

A case involving yearbook messages from parents to students was recently resolved without going to court. The yearbook staff at Liberty High School in California decided to edit out references to God in 25 separate ads that families had bought for graduating seniors. "The goal is not to have any offensive material in the yearbook," said principal Tim Halloran. "There are so many religions out there that certain people can get offended by other students' religions." Parents grew alarmed when they learned by word of mouth that the yearbook staff had changed all the religious messages to make them less specific to any one religion. For example, "remember to always keep Jesus first in your life" became "remember to always keep your faith first in your life." The word "God" was replaced with the word "He" wherever it appeared.

Commendably, the school reversed its position after parents and the Pacific Justice Institute confronted the issue. Liberty High School will spend $8,000 to change the messages back to their original intent in time for the yearbook to go to press.

Dissent not welcome

In another category of incidents, schools censor student speech on certain issues because they are perceived to be religiously motivated, and therefore, the schools assume, to violate the "separation of church and state." In Harrisonburg, Virginia, high school officials stopped student Andrew Raker from distributing pro-life flyers, and told him he would have to change clothes if other students complained about the pro-life slogans he was wearing. Raker was participating in the October 24th "Day of Silent Solidarity" to express solidarity with unborn children. Officials said that other students might object to Raker's materials or interpret them to be religious.

Even if the materials had been primarily religious, Raker would still have had the constitutional right to distribute literature on campus outside of class time. "You're trying to cut off written forms of communication. It's almost inconsistent with what school is all about," said Judge Samuel G. Wilson, who ordered school officials to lift their ban on pro-life speech. "They're not prisoners there. They're students. There's academic discourse going on."

The Day of Silent Solidarity sparked similar cases in other states. A Michigan case has also already been resolved in the student's favor.

In North Carolina, student Ben Arthurs was suspended for handing out postcards that criticized homosexual behavior. In response to the school-sanctioned "Day of Silence" across the nation, which expresses approval of homosexuality, many students who disagreed participated in what they called a "Day of Truth." School officials censored Arthurs because they believed his opinion was "pushing his religion on others," and "religion is not allowed in school." Arthurs and the school board arrived at a settlement after a preliminary court injunction.

A similar case, however, became more complicated when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against students Chase and Kelsie Harper. Chase Harper had worn a T-shirt that said, "I will not accept what God has condemned," and "Homosexuality is shameful. Rom 1:27." Administrators at his San Diego high school rebuked Harper, prohibited him from wearing the T-shirt, and told him he should "leave his faith in the car." The Ninth Circuit Court refused to hear the case, issuing a long diatribe to the effect that eliminating opinions like Harper's was more important than safeguarding free speech.

The Supreme Court has reversed the Ninth Circuit more than any other federal appellate circuit. In this case, the school district tried to raise arguments that would disallow the Harpers from appealing the ruling. The Supreme Court responded that if the plaintiff could not appeal, the ruling could not stand. The Ninth Circuit must now revisit the issue.

Campus Speech Codes

At many public universities, campus speech codes unconstitutionally limit students' free speech and free exercise of religion (See Education Reporter, Feb. 2007). They sometimes do so in the name of tolerance or harassment policies, and occasionally in the name of separation of church and state. Since courts strike down these codes repeatedly, and students and others are protesting them more often, perhaps the speech codes' days are numbered.

Some universities have tried to restrict student groups by saying they cannot choose members - or even leaders - based on whether the prospective members or leaders agree with the group's viewpoint or mission. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison refused to recognize the Roman Catholic Foundation student group partly because it did not allow leaders who disagreed with its mission. UW-M cited its discrimination policy. In March, a federal judge ordered the university to stop enforcing its discrimination policy unconstitutionally. Other cases have had a similar result.

Social Work Intolerance

Among graduate programs, programs in social work have cropped up in the news especially often after unfair restrictions are placed on students' freedom of conscience and religion. In a suit currently in progress, Jaqueline Escobar challenges her social work program at California State University - Long Beach (CSULB) and the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), where she was doing an internship. After Escobar discussed religious subjects with co-workers during lunch breaks and after work, CSULB and DCFS worked together to draft a "performance contract" requiring her not to discuss her religious opinions, even after work. When she refused, DCFS terminated her internship.

Christine Mize was a social work student at the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. For one of her assignments, she chose to write on a therapy plan for women suffering from post-abortion syndrome. However, her professor told her that her paper would be downgraded if she included a faith-based section in the recovery plan.

Christine obediently turned in her paper without a faith-based section, but she also provided the professor with legal information on her constitutional right to include religion in her assignments when it is appropriate to the topic. Dr. Laura Dreuth Zeman refused to grade the paper, gave Christine an "incomplete," and put her graduation in jeopardy.

After repeated unsuccessful appeals to college administrators, Christine turned to the Alliance Defense Fund. The university promptly backed down in response to a letter from ADF, gave Christine her grade, and allowed her to complete the course and graduate.

Another social work student, Emily Brooker, attended Missouri State University, where her opinion on adoption by homosexual couples got her into serious trouble with a professor who proclaimed social work to be exclusively a "liberal" profession. Professor Frank Kauffman originally required students to work in small groups on advocacy projects of their own choosing. Brooker joined a group to do a project on homelessness. A few weeks into the course, Kauffman suggested that the groups instead work on advocating homosexual foster homes and adoptions. Kauffman required the class to attend a town hall meeting on homosexual adoption, and write a letter to Missouri legislators advocating homosexual adoption.

Brooker participated in the other parts of the project but refused to sign an advocacy letter for homosexual adoption. The social work faculty then demanded that Emily write a paper declaring that she would "lessen the gap" between her personal beliefs and her obligations to the university's ethics code. They also subjected her to a 2-hour interrogation in which ethics committee members asked her intrusive questions such as, "Do you think gay and lesbian people are sinners?" and "Do you think your professors are sinners?"

Emily sued and won when MSU signed an out-of-court agreement. Her academic record was cleared, MSU will pay her tuition for two years of graduate school, her attorneys were paid, and Professor Kauffman was put on non-classroom duties for the rest of the semester.

After the incident with Brooker, the school's provost commissioned an independent report looking into the environment of the social work program. This report, just released, found problems that the university's president honorably concluded were "too numerous and too serious to hide or diminish."

The report primarily cited "bullying" of students by faculty and suppression of other views. "It appears that faculty have no history of intellectual discussion/debate. Rather, differing opinions are taken personally and often result in inappropriate discourse," the report stated. University leaders have taken prompt and responsible action to improve the program's "toxic" environment.

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