A Contentious Start to the
Conflicts over evangelizing other students and the use of school property by religious groups have gotten the church/state pot already heating up this year. Some schools still mistakenly assume they must discriminate against religious speech to maintain their nonsectarian educational environment. These schools end up entangled in lawsuits they eventually lose.
Evangelist Franklin Graham announced at a Southern Baptist Convention that they were launching a website with training materials to equip students to evangelize other students on public school campuses this year. He said, "Let's don't surrender public schools. Let's take them back. And how are we going to take them back? Are we going to fight for it? No, we're going to have witnesses... (in) every class, a young kid who can stand up and share his faith in Jesus Christ."
While this has been written up in many education advisories it would be well to remember that other groups (from Gay and Lesbian alliances to political parties) also train student advocates to advance their goals in public schools. This is certainly not illegal. School officials must remember that they cannot restrict a student's right to religious speech or from including religious themes in their assignments. However these students do not have a right to conduct proselytizing activities on a captive audience in the classroom or at school assemblies. This might be a good time to remind staff and students of their free speech rights and make sure that everyone understands that free speech does not give students the right to harass other students who have made it clear that they are not interested.
Also, a number of school districts are embroiled in lawsuits regarding the use of facilities by Good News Bible Clubs after school hours. Many schools feel they must treat religious clubs differently than the other boys and girls clubs that use public schools facilities. Doing so, however, will violate the Equal Access which does not permit school districts to discriminate against religious groups in the after-school hours of facility use. They must make their facilities available to religious groups in the same way and at the same cost they make it available to other community groups.
These conflicts at the beginning of the school year are unfortunate, but very common in an election year where political agendas are often advanced by stirring up conflict in our communities. I realize these issues pale in comparison to limited funding and the all-out efforts districts are making to meet the standards of the No Child Left Behind Act, but this is a good time to remember that getting it right the first time a church state conflict emerges can make the difference between a small bump in the road that leads to mutual respect and appreciation and an all-out war in the community that can sap important district resources.
Make sure that enough administrators in your district understand the laws that govern religious expression on public school campuses as it affects both staff and students.
Wayne Jacobsen, President
Special Announcement: The California 3 Rs Project is hosting a Workshop on "First Amendment Issues and Public Schools - guideline for Developing Policies and Partnerships" on October 26, 2004 in Ontario, California. this workshop will help districts deal with religious expression issues as well as help you develop policies legally permissible partnerships with faith communities who want to volunteer to help your school. You can download a pdf with further information here.
Worldviews Education Watch (WEW) is a free service provided by BridgeBuilders offering the latest information on religious liberty and public education drawn from court cases, policies and current events. It will also share examples of successful partnerships and cooperation between public schools and faith communities.
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