Does faith have a place at the school flagpole?
Written by Jimi Izrael
May 1, 2003
In uncertain times, fear grips our children the hardest and they need to know they can draw on their faith for comfort. But suppose your child is asked to participate in a "pray-in" or is asked to gather around the flagpole and pray, or even just to offer up a prayer before a big competition?
Are there legal boundaries that prevent your child from expressing his religious freedoms in his public school?
"Students can practice and express their religion in any way they choose," says Jan Resseger, the UCC's minister for public education and witness, "but the school can't establish religious activities." Children can't be precluded from their religious activities, but schools cannot sponsor religious activities.
No teacher-led prayers
For instance, a teacher can't take students to pray at the flagpole. A coach shouldn't lead the team in prayer before a game, either. A teacher can teach about religion in a historical and cultural way, but a teacher can't teach about religion in a way that may show preference for one particular faith at the expense of another.
"We have a very diverse society, with a lot of people practicing a lot of different religions," says Resseger. "When people talk about teaching religion in school, frequently they are talking about teaching their religion, to the exclusion of others."
"Some people have the impression that our schools are places where teachers abuse the rights of students frequently by not allowing them to pray or bring their Bibles to school," says John Ferguson, Education Coordinator of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. "Some people may believe that students have no religious liberty rights, with teachers forcing them into moments of silence, but a lot of that is mistaken."
Can teachers bring their own religious beliefs into the classroom? In public schools, teachers and staff are required to represent the public. As such, they cannot endorse any particular religious tradition. They can't violate the position they have been given as a public employee.
Student-led activities OK
Teachers can't encourage prayer, and they can't form Bible classes or encourage any kinds of religious activities on school grounds. Under the Equal Access Act, students have that right, and there must be a teacher or staff member to supervise for insurance reasons, just as with any other extra-curricular activity.
"It's important that these kinds of religious activities are student-led and student-initiated," says Ferguson, "and the monitor very explicitly cannot participate."
Students have the right to free expression on religious topics, says Ferguson, and have the right to bring a Bible or other sacred scripture to school. If a student comes in and wants to talk to a fellow student about his religious beliefs, and the student agrees that they will meet at lunchtime, then that's OK.
"Students have a right to those kinds of discussion," he says. "But if the other student refuses to talk or have a discussion about his beliefs, yet the other student is insistent, then the school has a duty to intervene."
If any religious activity interferes with school, then the school has to intercede.
But will children always have the right to express their faith? The Rev. Pat Conover, Legislative Director of UCC's Public Life and Social Policy Ministry in Washington D.C., feels that society is moving towards greater tolerance and inclusion.
"I think in the last half of the 20th century we have moved substantially towards a more religiously inclusive way of educating or children," says Conover, "and we are going in the right direction."