Offensive is Not Necessarily Illegal

October 2000

Citing concerns that the word 'Bible' might be offensive to some parents a public high school in Lodi, California members of The Bible Club were prevented from using that word in their announcements over the PA system.

In a peer counseling course in a central California school district, students asked to have a moment of silence in memory of the students who died in Littleton, Colorado. As they were about to begin, one student read a quotation from the Bible. The next day the teacher was reprimanded by administrators after a mother had called in saying was she offended that a student was allowed to read a passage from the Bible in a public school classroom.

In both of these instances a misunderstanding of the separation of church and state led public school administrators to the wrong conclusion. Just because someone is offended, doesn't mean that religious neutrality has been violated. After learning that the Bible Club had as much right to make their announcements as any other club on campus, the administration reversed their policy.

The Supreme Court did not outlaw state-sponsored prayer and Bible reading because it might be offensive to some, but because the state should not be allowed to use public schools to advance a particular faith. Nothing in those decisions was meant to exclude the Bible from academic study in the public school nor to diminish the free speech rights of students concerning religious matters.

At one workshop I conducted for a public school teaching staff in Massachusetts, they came up with 55 ways the Bible could be used in a public school classroom that would not violate religious neutrality. When asked how many had used the Bible as a resource in the last five years, none had. In being uncertain what was fair use and what wasn't, they had found it easier to just leave it out altogether. But that in itself conveys a message hostile to people of faith.

While public school officials should do all they can to encourage an academic environment that is fair to students who have religious faith and those who do not, the answer does not lie in finding the least offensive course of action. The guidelines for religious neutrality have become increasingly clear in recent years, and learning how to apply them can save districts incidents that can not only prove embarrassing, but also risk potential litigation when the law is not applied fairly to all.

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